Marivi Wright’s “vacation from hell” began when Air France’s computer systems went down and staff had to check in passengers on her flight from New York to Europe by hand.
She missed two connecting flights as she flew through Paris to Spain to visit her 83-year-old mother, landing in Malaga 12 hours late. Her luggage was nowhere to be seen.
“My mum has dementia and this was my time to sit with her to go through pictures,” said Wright, explaining that those were in the missing bag. “I spent time buying clothes at the airport or filling claims . . . That’s time with my mum that I’ll never get back. I’m emotionally drained,” she added.
Wright is one of millions of passengers who have endured a chaotic summer getaway as flight cancellations and disruptions have swept across Europe.
The problems stem from chronic staff shortages across many parts of the aviation industry, including airlines, airports and ground-handling companies, which are subcontracted to provide services including check-in and baggage handling.
As coronavirus travel restrictions were lifted and many planned their first trips in two years, demand has rebounded faster than the industry has been able to hire new staff.
Outbreaks of industrial action have added to the problems, including a pilot strike at the Scandinavian airline SAS that contributed to it filing for bankruptcy this month.
“There are problems right across airports in Europe,” said Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways. “We face the same problems in France . . . Belgium, Holland, Germany. Actually it’s an epidemic.”
Passengers have also endured unquantified delays, queues and lost luggage as the industry has been unable to handle the sheer number of passengers.
Nikolas Syrimis spent 12 hours inside Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport this week, including two and a half hours in “insanely long” queues, after his easyJet flight was cancelled because of runway damage in the extreme temperatures at London Luton airport.
“Even with all the headlines, seeing it for yourself is nothing like I have ever experienced,” he said.
US airlines and airports have also suffered bursts of disruption as they have ramped up over the past year, but Europe has emerged as the epicentre of travel disruption this summer.
And even when operations do not break down, hours-long waits to move through European airports have become commonplace.
On Friday, queues snaked outside Manchester airport and past the car park, where passengers waiting to depart described “organised chaos” as well as surprise at being made to stand outside in the rain.
Major hub airports including London Heathrow and Frankfurt have forced airlines to cut their schedules to limit overcrowding, and Dutch carrier KLM on Thursday told passengers transferring through Schiphol not to try to check in luggage after a breakdown in the baggage systems.
The vast majority of passengers will, eventually, get to their destination. But busy airports with complex operations and little leeway to reschedule delayed flights have suffered some of the most significant disruption.
Brussels Airport has been the worst in Europe for delays, with 73 per cent of flights delayed this month, according to data compiled by online booking company Hopper. London Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle in Paris and Frankfurt were in the top 10 worst, with more than half of flights delayed.
One in 50 flights departing from European countries has been cancelled in the last week, including 680 flights departing from Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain — three times the number in the same period in 2019, according to data provider Cirium.
Smaller European airports have been more resilient, partly because of the relative simplicity of their operations. Gran Canaria, Alicante and Malaga in Spain were all in the 10 best performing airports, with less than a fifth of flights suffering delays.
Pauline Kennedy, who is retired, contrasted her “amazing” experience arriving at Manchester airport with her departure from Amsterdam, where she said there were queues for everything. “I think finally, Manchester’s got its act together,” she said.
Airports in tourism-dependent economies, where keeping travel flowing is a national priority, have also performed better.
At Athens International Airport, Elisabet Chousiades said she breezed through the terminal and collected her bags without delay after flying in from the US.
Tourism is vital to the Greek economy, generating a quarter of GDP when indirect contributions are included. Tellingly, Athens airport management turned to a government support scheme to keep all 800 of its staff employed during the pandemic, as well as most of the 8,000 subcontracted staff who work in ground handling and security.
“We didn’t fire anyone, we wound down the operation and had people work 50 per cent,” said Yiannis Paraschis, its chief executive.
With the peak summer travel period beginning as schools break up and families set off on their annual vacation, the aviation industry is preparing for the pressure to rise even further. Europe’s biggest airline Ryanair has said it planned to fly more passengers this year than in 2019.
There are also signs that operations are recovering, and disruption has eased as carriers and airports increase their operations and get more staff to the frontline.
Cancellation rates in the UK fell from 3 per cent in the first week of June to 1.2 per cent in the same period this month, while in France they fell from 2.5 per cent to 1.4 per cent, according to data company OAG.
But that is little consolation to the passengers who have endured long delays, frustrating cancellations while watching items of luggage go missing.
Marilou Le Lann said her bags disappeared on a layover in Paris while on a journey from Turkey to Montreal last weekend. “I have about $30,000 worth of stuff in my luggage — designer bags, shoes, stuff like that,” she said.
She continued: “The reason we went to Turkey is that my partner had hair transplant surgery and he had the medicine for his transplant in the luggage. This is now being jeopardised because we don’t have all the products he needs.”
Additional reporting by Claire Jones in Frankfurt