MADRID – The unexpectedly rapid recovery in travel clashes with massive staff shortages after two years dominated by travel restrictions to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Luggage chaos and delays everywhere at airports is the result.
Take, for example, a night flight from Düsseldorf to Barcelona. The crew is on duty and the passengers are on board, but the suitcases are nowhere to be seen. At the airport of the German city, baggage handling is a mess. The pilot has two options! Either postpone the trip and thereby change the schedule for the next day (cancellations, delays…) or fly. However, this would be without all the bags.
This scene – according to La Vanguardia happened a few days ago – illustrates how the chaos in air traffic in Europe jumps from one country to another in a kind of domino effect. It spoils the holiday of the passengers who have to spend the first days at their destination without their belongings.
For the same reasons there has been chaos around the pieces of luggage, the after-delivery isn’t exactly smooth either. The logistics of handling and storing lost luggage are not that simple.
German media are now reporting that German airports cannot handle the sheer volume of suitcases piling up in their terminals. Nearly 300 suitcases arrive at Berlin airport every day and are forwarded by airlines to their customers. The airport operator in Munich has confirmed that there is a mountain of several thousand suitcases pending allocation. Additional storage space had to be set up for this.
According to a spokesman for Hanover Airport, the compound records five times more lost suitcases than usual. “We estimate the number to be an average of between 300 and 500 cases of lost and found items per day,” they note in statements collected by the aforementioned media.
While travel is more expensive this summer than it was before the pandemic, service is more precarious across half of Europe. Since the start of the holiday season, not a day has gone by without an airline announcing flight restrictions. This results in images of long lines and piles of pieces of luggage piling up in the terminals. Add to that the calls for strikes in Spain, the Scandinavian countries and France and the chaos is complete. The long-awaited return to normal tourism, therefore, looks very different in practice than expected.
The problem is that in aviation all links in the value chain influence each other. If there are problems at Schiphol-Amsterdam airport (and they are quite serious), the incidents will spread to other cities, especially those with high saturation levels.
Flight cancellation numbers “are well above what’s considered normal in the industry,” said John Grant, director of research at OAG, a leading aviation consultancy.
Spain has the lowest number of cancelled flights
However, the effect is different in every country. OAG data shows that Spain is among the European countries with the lowest number of cancelled flights. The figures are very similar to those of the summer of 2019. Apart from incidents, such as the effects of strike days at Ryanair or Easyjet or longer waiting times during peak hours at the airports with the most international traffic, the situation at the Spanish airports is relatively stable according to Grant.
Other in the Netherlands, Germany, UK and France
The situation is different in the Netherlands and especially in Germany, the United Kingdom and France. The week from June 27 to July 3, which coincided with the first major outbound operation, was catastrophic at the airports of these countries, which are also the main publishers of tourists to Spain. More than 8,000 flights were cancelled in Germany, more than 11,000 in France… It concerns all kinds of cancellations, but the staff shortage is the main reason, says Grant.
Flight cancellations have to do with passengers not being able to start their journey, the feared overbooking and chain delays. “Avoid Schiphol at all costs, even if you have to change seven times to reach your destination”, passengers repeat on social networks. Travellers have flooded the internet with Dantesque images of the Amsterdam hub, with waiting for lines outside the terminals of more than a kilometre and crowds you’ve never seen inside. Frankfurt airport is piling up complaints in the same way.
The massive cuts to flights also mean less revenue for airlines that have yet to recover from billions of dollars in losses from the pandemic, when governments forced them to grind to a halt.
The striking difference between countries
There is a pattern here, emphasises Pere Suau-Sánchez, professor at UOC and Cranfield University. Countries with liberal and less protective economic policies during the covid crisis now suffer more from the recovery of quality air activity.
As an example, he mentions the equivalent of the Spanish ERTE in the United Kingdom, with a lower level of employment protection. It ended in September 2021. In Spain, the Covid ERTE lasted until March 31 this year, when the travel industry got going again.
Therefore, the UK now has major problems at its airports. And, subsequently, the mayor of London has even called for a relaxation of hiring rules post-Brexit to allow workers to leave Eastern Europe. However, Britons themselves do not seem to want to work in the hold of the aircraft.
“Thousands of people have been made redundant from ground services in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands or the United Kingdom; ERTEs were applied in Spain and the recovery of workers was less expensive there than in these countries,” said José Ramírez, head of the air sector at UGT Catalunya.
10,000 fewer employees
Schiphol, one of the busiest airports in Europe, has to hire 500 security staff and has 10,000 fewer employees than before Covid (58,000 in total), even though the level of activity is growing. Charles de Gaulle and Orly (Paris) must immediately fill 4,000 positions, while about 20,000 people have been laid off during the pandemic.
The UK will speed up hiring procedures. Frankfurt Airport will employ 1,000 employees for the handling services. Only it will take up to three months to cover the 4,000 layoffs during the pandemic.
In Spain, the Interior Ministry pledged to allocate 500 additional officers to passport control in light of the huge queues that have sprung up in Barajas, El Prat, Málaga-Costa del Sol and Tenerife.
The biggest problem of staff shortages is in cabin crew, security, ground staff and baggage handling. Working conditions there are precarious with low wages and harsh working conditions. Moreover, airports usually outsource these services.
In Spain, the basic salary for employees of the auxiliary handling services is €16,635 gross, while for management technicians it rises to €25,659. The maximum salary in these two positions – the higher you go – is €22,826 and €29,783, respectively.
Furthermore, before the pandemic, 40% of these workers in Spain had temporary employment contracts. “We need reinforcements, especially now that the sector is very overloaded; otherwise the problems of other airports will eventually cause a collapse here,” warns a source at UGT union.
“This summer will be a challenge”
“This summer is going to be a challenge,” emphasises OAG’s John Grant, though he believes the worst may be over. “The airlines – he continues – are adjusting their flight schedule and the available human resources. This will help to normalize the activity and avoid last-minute cancellations and inconvenience for passengers.”
Meanwhile, travellers have no choice but to arm themselves with patience, possibly leave their big suitcases at home and make do with hand luggage on their first vacation without restrictions in two years.