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'It was inexcusable last year': Another summer of chaos at European airlines and airports?

People stand in a long queue in front of the security check at the international airport in Frankfurt, Germany.
People stand in a long queue in front of the security check at the international airport in Frankfurt, Germany. Copyright AP Photo/Michael Probst
Copyright AP Photo/Michael Probst
By Rosie FrostRuth Wright
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Many are hoping to leave the queues and piles of abandoned baggage in 2022.

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The boss of one of the UK's biggest airlines and holiday companies, Jet2, has branded the 2022 summer travel chaos "inexcusable".

With many passengers travelling for the first time since COVID restrictions lifted, Steve Heapy said “many companies messed other companies and customers around last year and gave them a terrible experience. If they make the same mistake again, they should just hang their heads in shame and fall on their sword."

So have airports and airlines corrected the mistakes of last year or will queues, delays and cancellations dominate summer 2023?

Why was 2022 a chaotic year for travel?

After travel restrictions ended Europeans jumped at the chance of a holiday, with many reuniting with friends and family. But the aviation industry wasn’t ready for the huge jump in traveller numbers. It left airports and airlines overwhelmed.

Half of all flights in Europe were delayed last summer and nearly 2,000 were cancelled every day, according to European air traffic management body Eurocontrol.

Some airports and airlines coped better than others, but for many passengers, travelling through Europe was not a positive experience.

AP Photo/Peter Dejong
Travellers wait in long lines to check in and board flights at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, Netherlands, Tuesday, June 21, 2022.AP Photo/Peter Dejong

The main cause of the chaos was staff shortages. Aviation workers were made redundant during the pandemic and hadn’t been replaced. Queues built up at airport security, check-in and passport control while luggage piled up with no one to handle it.

The industry says it is prepared for this summer but the number of travellers is set to surge once again.

What will air travel be like in 2023?

While some airports, such as Manchester, have said they have recruited enough staff to meet demand, strikes may replace staff shortages as the biggest concern this summer.

A ir traffic management body Eurocontrol adds a few more worries to the list, “Getting closer to pre-pandemic traffic levels will not be easy against a backdrop of supply chain issues, possible industrial action, airspace unavailability, sector bottlenecks, rising demand and system changes,”

They say that 2023 is set to be a “hugely challenging” year and will require a lot of effort to meet demand and keep delays down.

It is a sentiment that was echoed by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary at the start of the year. He told a press conference that the aviation industry needed to “pull out all the stops” against a litany of potential issues this coming summer.

He reckons that this summer will once again be characterised by delays and cancellations.

AP Photo/Frank Augstein
Chief Executive of Ryanair, Michael O'Leary.AP Photo/Frank Augstein

Airports are trying to combat issues of understaffing with measures like passenger caps. These restrictions hope to reduce the risk of lengthy queues at security, check-in and passport control.

Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam made headlines last year for all the wrong reasons with hours-long queues and cancelled flights. It imposed a passenger cap in an attempt to ease the chaos.

It extended this cap through April and May during peak morning hours. The cap is also intended to reduce the number of flights in and out of the airport to reduce carbon emissions.

Heathrow Airport has also asked airlines to stop adding extra flights to their schedules during the peak season to avoid chaos this summer. It saw more growth than any other airport in the world following the return of travel but warned that this was “challenging operationally”.

The airport’s chief executive John Holland-Kay has said he anticipates it to be busier than 2019 on some days this summer. But, after a recent recruitment drive, he expects things to run smoothly.

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Will travel strikes be a problem in 2023?

French Air Traffic Control (ATC) strikes have already made flying tricky in the first half of this year. There have been rolling strikes since February, and in April more than 10 million passengers were hit with delays or cancellations due to the strikes.

Strikes in France have such a big impact because its central European location means that many flights make their way over France on their journey to other destinations. These ‘overflights’ are also affected when French air traffic controllers go on strike.

Around half of the passengers affected in April people are likely to have been on a flight that was only passing over France.

Ryanair's O’Leary warned that further walkouts risk “shutting everyone down” if the current dispute over pensions continues into the summer.

JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP or licensors
Travellers looking at the departure information in Terminal 2 of the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, amid a strike of air traffic controllers.JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP or licensors

And these aren’t the only strikes taking place. Across Europe, airport and airline staff are locked into disputes over pay and working conditions as the cost of living crisis bites.

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It isn’t unusual for these strikes to take place at the most popular time to travel as this is when they are most disruptive.

European train travel: The cheaper, stress-free alternative to flying

While air travel has been in freefall since COVID restrictions lifted, long distance train travel is just getting better and better.

New routes are launching in Europe almost weekly, with this trend set to continue in 2024 and 2025.

It's now possible to do journeys like London to Istanbul and Amsterdam to Venice entirely by train, taking in top European destinations along the way. 

Making the journey part of the trip rather than just a way to get from A to B is one of the most popular reasons to switch to train travel.

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As well as saving you money, train travel can also save you time as you usually only have to arrive at the station one hour before departure, even for international routes.

It's also a less stressful packing experience as you don't have to worry about liquids in your luggage or the strict rules airlines have on weight and size of bags.

If you're not sure how to check schedules or book train travel, follow these simple tips from an industry insider.

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