Eternal queues, canceled flights and delays: why European airports are approaching chaos and how it can hit Spain

After more than two years of hardship due to the coronavirus, the tourism sector faces this summer campaign with the illusion of a child on Three Kings Day. However, now it is facing a new setback: the chaos registered in recent weeks at European airports puts the sector on alert at the gates of summer. The problems are varied – lack of staff at airfields, stricter controls for British travelers due to the UK’s exit from the EU and a shortage of police officers – and have been causing long queues and delays for weeks in centers such as London, Brussels or Amsterdam. The first consequence is the loss of connections due to the delays it causes, an extreme that the Interior denies that it happens in Spain. And the most feared effect for the sector is the brake it can have on tourism.

The lack of personnel has hit airports on the Old Continent in recent weeks, including the British, the main fishing ground for travelers from Spain (18 million arrived from the islands in 2019). In this case, it is due to the shortage of workers at aerodromes, although Brexit also takes its toll on European destination airports by requiring increased controls and, therefore, more police officers. That is, after leaving the EU, travelers have a somewhat more cumbersome access. In this way, it will be a reality that your passage time through passport controls will increase, which will end in more queues and congestion. Spain will be one of the most affected because tourists residing in the United Kingdom account for more than 20% of the foreign travelers who arrive in the country each year.

Photo: EFE/Fernando Villar | Video: EFE

The largest police union, Jupol, considers that there is a clear lack of troops to deal with this avalanche, although it believes that it will be corrected in the coming months with the announced reinforcements. Despite this, he maintains that the arrival of British tourists will worsen the situation at the entrances: “Summer is just around the corner and there will be a notable increase in passengers who will take longer to pass the controls. Therefore, there is no doubt that there will be more congestion.” This effect has already been evident in recent weeks, as the airlines have reported, and will be accentuated in summer. Hence, Javier Gándara, president of the Airline Association (ALA), calls for border controls to be strengthened. Or the Tourism Board, which calls on the Minister of the Interior, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, to “assume responsibility for him.” Despite this, the ministry believes that this will not take its toll: “Everything is planned and Brexit will not be a setback. We do not believe that more changes are necessary, ”say Interior sources.

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First notice in the UK

The long festive bridge of the Platinum Jubilee, the commemoration of the 70 years of the reign of Elizabeth II, coincided with the bimonthly holiday week —half term— enjoyed by British schoolchildren. A perfect storm that has become the first warning for the sector, since it was the ideal time for a family vacation. As of Sunday June 5, tens of thousands of UK passengers were still scattered across airports across Europe. More than 200 flights from airlines such as easyJet, British Airways or WizzAir had been canceled due to the lack of workers. Scheduled trips to popular destinations such as Madrid, Seville, Milan or Palermo were suspended at the last minute. In all, 305 flights out of 10,662 scheduled for the bridge failed to take off from British airports, according to aeronautical data company Cirium.

The unleashed tension, the indignation of many travelers at a frustrated vacation and, above all, the prospect that the problems will worsen in the summer season have caused a confrontation between the aeronautical industry and the Government of Boris Johnson. Transport Minister Grant Shapps accused airlines and tour operators of “having sold more flights and holiday packages than they could.” The response has been a direct reproach to the British Executive for the lack of support for a sector that especially suffered the ravages of the pandemic and the restrictions on mobility.

These setbacks are repeated throughout the Old Continent, for example in Brussels. Also at the Amsterdam-Schiphol international airport, the second busiest in the European Union after the French Charles de Gaulle, where passengers have already been warned that during the summer there may be delays when boarding. The problems respond, in part, to the lack of security personnel. This Tuesday, the aerodrome information page warns that “there are queues in the arrival and departure halls”, and asks that the flight schedules be carefully reviewed to avoid more crowds. And it advises in turn to arrive a maximum of four hours before takeoff. This situation in Amsterdam has been dragging on for at least five weeks and reached its limit on June 4. Then, the KLM company announced that it would not take more travelers from European countries to Schiphol that day “in order to transfer those who have been waiting for hours at the airport to their destination,” the airline itself explained in a statement. There will be a rush for the summer holidays, but it seems that they will start with a long wait.

lack of employees

The problems of European airports have their origin in the drastic reduction in personnel that occurred in the last two years, when mobility sank due to the coronavirus crisis, according to the experts consulted. Now, after several ups and downs, the definitive explosion in demand is expected for this summer with a return to pre-pandemic levels. The seats scheduled by the airlines to fly to Spain between June and August exceed 32.4 million, which represents a recovery of 94% compared to the same period in 2019, according to the Ministry of Tourism with data from Turespaña. Aena, for its part, has an even more optimistic forecast between April and the end of October: 215.6 million scheduled seats, 1.6% more than in the year before the pandemic.

Given this boom, not all aerodromes have been able to resize their templates. Aena sources explain that the Spanish case has already slammed the door on this need. That is, the necessary employees have returned to deal with the expected arrivals in the coming months. “We have solved it well because with the ERTE it has been possible to recover the workers in an agile way. In Europe, many of these employees will already be in other jobs and the airports do not find the necessary personnel for the current level of demand”, these sources add.

There is a lack of personnel and the airports cannot find trained candidates. In the British case, for example, during the last two years the airlines came to dispense with 30,000 employees, according to the employers’ association Airlines UK. Aerodromes and maintenance and service companies reduced their workforce by almost 70,000. Now, rehiring all that staff at a fast pace is no easy task. Much less if you take into account that any new entry into such a sensitive sector requires a security control and background check process by the Civil Aviation Authority that can take more than 14 weeks.

For Spain, concern is growing because these problems in Europe are not unrelated to it: they will affect it indirectly due to the contagion effect, “something more difficult to manage”, according to sources from the Ministry of Transport. Meanwhile, sources from the airport manager warn: “If there is a problem at origin, it will hit us because the schedules will be altered and arrivals can accumulate outside of what was planned. And especially for departures, since there will be flights that your ship has not arrived on time due to a previous delay. Everything is chained.” The expected record summer will put pressure on airports, which are trying to prevent these collapses from becoming chronic.

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