The European peak travel season is being affected by a wave of strikes and Covid infections which, coupled with latent staff shortages, are leading to chaos and the cancellation of thousands of flights, aggravating the crisis in the sector on the Old Continent.
The hoped-for post-pandemic recovery is being limited by labor disputes and airport logistics constraints. At airports in Amsterdam, London, Frankfurt and Paris, chaotic scenes are unfolding, with queues of people waiting for hours just to be informed of the cancellation of their flights.
No signs of improvement in the short term
On the horizon there is only the possibility of increasing chaos. The unions are trying to take advantage of the desperation of the airlines -which are aiming for a record season to end the streak of economic losses and begin to recover the sector from its worst crisis in a century- to achieve their objectives of wage increases in line with inflation, better working conditions, and compliance with labor legislation.
Ryanair cabin crew members in Spain, Portugal and Belgium began a three-day strike on Friday, June 24th. They were joined by their counterparts in France on Saturday and in Italy on Sunday. In a statement replicated by Bloomberg, the airline said that «less than 2%» of its flights in Belgian territory were affected. Ryanair’s Spanish employees are called for another three days of strike action on Friday, July 1st. EasyJet – Ryanair’s long-time rival – is also preparing for nine days of staggered strikes in Spain, starting July 1st.
On the other hand, Aeroports De Paris, operator of Charles de Gaulle (CDG) and Orly airports, is holding talks with the unions to try to avoid a second strike, which is scheduled for Friday, June 1st. The June 9th action led to the elimination of a quarter of the flights at CDG, and the closure of two runways. «They put us in difficult situations and it’s frustrating,» said Ben Smith, CEO of Air France-KLM, one of the companies most affected by the strike.
Finally, the British Airways traffic staff also decided in assembly to go on strike. The dates and modalities of the strike will be determined shortly, and will affect the airline’s services at Heathrow airport (London). In the United Kingdom, the crisis has been aggravated by a rail strike that is hampering access to airports. The Transport Staff Association, the rail workers’ union, has warned that Britain faces «a long summer of discontent» if no agreement is reached.
It is not only strikes that affect the industry
Beyond the strikes, staff shortages are forcing airlines to cut back on summer operations. Lufthansa on Friday increased to 3,100 the number of flights it will cancel in July and August. British Airways, which laid off about 10,000 employees during the pandemic, is struggling to win back workers, encountering a changed labor market.
From the ground side, the news is no better. Gatwick (London) and Schiphol (Amsterdam), two of Europe’s largest airports, announced a limitation in the daily operations they will handle. Even after this, the Netherlands’ largest airport was struggling last Friday to cope with the influx of passengers, with endless queues. To make room for passengers, the terminal had to set up tents outside the departure hall.
Airlines apologize, but point out that things could get worse
Lufthansa management apologized for the disruptions and cancellations affecting the industry, and warned that the situation will get worse before it gets better. The company said the airline industry is reaching the limit of available resources as both airlines and airports struggle to rebuild their operations in the wake of the pandemic. «We can only apologize for this,» Lufthansa said in a statement, published by Bloomberg. «As passenger numbers continue to increase, the situation is unlikely to improve, at least in the short term.»
According to Lufthansa – Europe’s largest airline, it should be noted – the mix is almost perfect: a wave of coronavirus infections has exacerbated staff shortages, the war in Ukraine has restricted airspace in Europe, causing «bottlenecks in the skies», and strikes only add to the problem. The airline closed by stating that while the industry is looking to rehire thousands of employees, this will only stabilize operations during the winter.