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How airports across Europe have been hit by travel chaos

Long queues, delays, and even cancellations: European airports have been chaotic ahead of the summer holidays. Here is what you need to know.

How airports across Europe have been hit by travel chaos
If you don't want to be left in the terminal, arrive earlier than usual to Kastrup airport for flights during holidays. Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix

It has been the perfect storm: an increase in passenger flow as holidays arrive and Covid restrictions end and a shortage of workers in the tourism and travel sector after the coronavirus pandemic.

While each country also has its own problems on the ground, including IT issues and even an influx of UK tourists adding to long queues for passport control, the main problems are still pandemic-related and affect nearly every European country.

First, people have resumed travelling. After two years of corona-related restrictions that made travelling more complex with the fear of lockdowns and the virus itself driving tourism down, most EU countries now have none or almost no pandemic restrictions.

In most places there is no longer any need for green passes, health passes, Covid-apps, vaccination certificates or proof of negative test results. The combination of easing restrictions and lower Covid numbers in most of the world, especially in Europe, has made passenger numbers surge.

But at the same time, there are severe staff shortages in the continent. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said that “thousands of ground handling staff left the aviation industry during the pandemic”.

The most pressing issue is the bottleneck for security and baggage checks as the airline industry prepares for the peak season, the association says.

“The peak northern summer travel season is fast-approaching, and passengers are already experiencing the effects of bottlenecks in getting security clearances for staff at the airport”, said Nick Careen, IATA’s Senior Vice President for Operations, Safety and Security.

In some European airports, the combination has led to chaos. Here’s a run through of where is most affected.

France

In the Paris region, travellers at Charles de Gaulle airport were already reporting long queues at the beginning of May.

“We should not be under any illusions; we will be understaffed to get through the summer. Clearly, there will be additional expectations at the controls and elsewhere,” Thomas Juin, the president of the Union of French airports told Le Figaro.

READ ALSO: ‘We will be understaffed this summer’ warn French airport unions

In recent weeks, there have been chaotic scenes at airports around Europe, and unions warn that France is likely to face similar problems this summer.

So far, Orly airport has not seen its capacities “overflowing”, but it is already “under tension.” Nevertheless, the airport’s director, Sandra Lignais, told Le Figaro that she is attempting to stay “vigilant” about the situation.

France’s Charles de Gaulle airport still advises passengers to “be at the airport 2 hours before the departure of your flight to drop off your luggage and complete all police and security formalities.”

However, the airport’s website warns passengers to check their boarding passes because they will indicate more specific boarding time instructions “according to the busy periods at the airport.”

READ ALSO: “IT problems” blamed for cancellation of flights from French airports

Recently, French airports also saw several flights cancelled after “IT problems”, as The Local reported. The issues were with the British budget airline EasyJet and 200 flights across Europe were affected.

Sweden

Swedish airports have also seen queues lasting more than one hour at security controls. Arlanda’s airport operator said the lines resulted from a resurgence in travel combined with staffing shortages at Avarn, the contractor responsible for managing the security checks.

READ ALSO: ‘Utter chaos’: Stockholm’s Arlanda airport still hit by long queues

“The wait times are due to a staff shortage with our security services contractor – which is caused by ongoing recruitment and absences due to illness,” the airport said on its website.

Travellers took to social media to report on the status of the chaos.

Denmark

Staff shortages at security checks, caused by a lengthy rehiring process following the Covid-19 crisis, have been blamed for crowds and long queues at Copenhagen Airport during peak times over the spring.

And the situation is not expected to get better anytime soon.

The airport’s commercial director Peter Krogsgaard told DR that Copenhagen is not alone in experiencing problems with queues. “​​We are therefore seeing that now passengers are coming back and fortunately want to travel again. We are under a bit of pressure, to begin with,” he said.

READ ALSO: Copenhagen Airport passengers warned of more queues on holiday weekends

“We expect to be very busy and are therefore advising all passengers travelling within Europe to arrive two hours before their flight. If you are going outside of Europe, to the United States or Asia, you should come three hours before,” Krogsgaard told DR.

Spain

Spain has seen a surge in air travel, according to the country’s state-run airport manager Aena. There were more than 20.4 million passengers in April, just 12 percentage points from pre-pandemic levels.

The accumulated figures up to April 2022 reflect a recovery of 76.8 per cent of passenger traffic compared with the same period in 2019 and an increase of 389.7 per cent compared with 2021, the organisation said.

READ ALSO: Will Spain follow in Portugal’s footsteps and fast-track UK travellers?

Meanwhile, issues with passport control due to staff shortages and the post-Brexit British on non-EU passport lines could cause trouble in the future.

Spain’s Airlines Association (ALA) has called for more police officers to be deployed before the summer to prevent some of the travel chaos seen at airports’ passports and security controls over the Easter holidays.

More than 3,000 passengers are believed to have missed their flights at Madrid’s Barajas airport over Holy Week due to the holdups at third-country nationals’ passport queues.

Italy

Italy is also expecting summer tourism to boom, especially as it dropped all Covid rules for travellers.

READ ALSO: Italy scraps all Covid entry rules for travellers

The number of domestic and international tourists in the country is set to rise by 43 per cent compared to 2021, according to a survey from the market research institute Demoskopika.

That means 92 million people – both Italians and foreigners – are expected to take trips throughout 2022. Since staff shortages hurt the sector, though, the combination of problems is set.

Germany

Long queues as staff cannot handle demand have also been a problem in German airports. The Autobahn country, though, might face further issues this summer, as a cheap public transport ticket, which allows for unlimited travel in regional transport for € 9 a month, increases demand for train travel.

READ ALSO: ‘A great thing’: German residents welcome cheap public transport deal

Still, with the country removing most of its Covid restrictions for travellers (at least those coming from the European Union) and Germans heading to their paradise destinations of choice over the summer, airports are set to have high traffic in the coming months.

Austria

Since the corona pandemic, Austria has been facing broad issues with staff shortages. Currently, the country has thousands of open positions, especially in tourism and aviation. So the ingredients for long queues and headaches at airports are there.

Staff at airports, including Vienna International Airport, have warned that “the situation is drastic”, and current employees both on the ground and in the air alert that the summer months could bring problems as demand is set to surge.

READ ALSO: How Austria is making it easier for non-EU workers to get residence permits

An anonymous employee told Austrian media that delays are already happening.

“The passengers already have to wait an hour at check-in, then another hour at the security. I have already been insulted by aggressive passengers”, the person said.

Switzerland

Switzerland has started preparing for summer by hiring new staff in February, as The Local reported.

The increase in the number of staff providing passenger services such as check-in and gate assistance and baggage-handling and aircraft services will help airport servicer Swissport’s 850 client airlines scale up their operations and bring it back to essentially its pre-pandemic number of employees.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Do flights to and from Switzerland require face masks?

Still, the country has faced several issues recently, from temporary disruption after fires to being affected by Easyjet’s IT problem. Most of the affected flights were from Geneva.

Other airports

Travellers were complaining of two-hour queues at the border control at Heathrow Airport in the UK. At the UK’s Manchester Airport, passengers were reporting queues for the security of up to two hours on Thursday.

Dublin Airport is also facing regular two-hour queues at security. Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport recently had a 1km security queue, pushing the Dutch airline KLM to cancel flights.

Know your rights

If you have issues with delays, cancellations or other problems with the airline, you might be covered by the EU legislation on passenger rights. Depending on the case, you have a right to refunds, transfers, food vouchers and even cash payments.

Here is what you need to know about your rights as a traveller in the European Union.

Member comments

  1. I used to do a lot of air travel but not any more. Back in April I took the TGV from Nice to Paris. I still regret taking a flight back to Nice. The EU should study the railway system in China to see what’s possible. But the EU Commission is full of empty suits that babble green.

  2. The Berlin airport is a tragedy. It is still being constructed and is not finished. The security lines are endless and no one cares. It is faster to take a train these days. The security lines take longer than most inter European flights.

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TRAIN TRAVEL

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

Hoping to do his bit for the planet, perhaps save some money and avoid spending any time in airports, The Local's Ben McPartland decided to travel 2,000km with his family across Europe by train - not plane. Here's how he got on on and would he recommend it?

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying - even with kids

Summer 2022 has seen the return of people travelling across Europe en masse whether for holidays or to see family, or both.

But it’s also seen chaos in airports, airline strikes and more questions than ever about whether we should be flying at all as Europe bakes under consecutive heatwaves caused by the climate crisis.

But are there really viable alternatives to travelling 2,000 km across Europe in a short space of time – with young kids?

The predicament

We needed to get from Paris to Portugal, or to be more precise the western edge of the Algarve in southern Portugal, for a week-long family holiday.

We didn’t have that much time to spend travelling there and back so the dilemma was how could we get there, fairly quickly?

“We” in this case being a family of four including two children aged 5 and 7, one fairly easygoing mum and a dad (me) who increasingly comes out in a rash when he goes near an airport.

Normally we’d have flown – as we did when we went to the same region of Portugal in October – but the stories of airport chaos, delays, cancellations, strikes and never-ending queues around Europe at the start of the summer made the prospect of taking the plane far less appealing.

Then throw in the climate crisis and the growing feeling that we, as a family, need to make an effort for the cause.

So the thought of flying, during what forecasters say was one of the hottest Julys on record in Europe and as rivers dried up and wildfires burn, just didn’t feel like an acceptable option – to me anyway – when there are alternatives.

There was the option of driving from France to Portugal, as many French and Portuguese nationals living in France do every summer. But driving nearly 2,000 km there and back for just a week’s holiday with two kids strapped in the back for hours on end would have been asking for trouble – either a breakdown or lots of meltdowns.

So that left taking the train. But would it be viable?  Would something go wrong as my colleague Richard Orange had warned on his own rail trip across Europe with kids this summer?

READ ALSO: What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids

Planning the route

With the help of some really knowledgeable European rail experts like Jon Worth and information from the excellent The Man in Seat Sixty-One website we looked at the various rail routes through France and Spain to southern Portugal.

One problem was the line from southern Spain to the Algarve no longer runs which meant the best we could do was get to Seville and then hire a car.

At one point the best option looked like a night train (fairly cheap with a whole cabin reserved for the family) down to the Pyrenees (Latour-de-Carol) and then a local train to Barcelona before onwards travel to Portugal.

But in the end we settled on the direct train from Paris to Barcelona, spend the night in the Catalan city before taking the train the next day to Seville and picking up the car.

READ ALSO 6 European cities less than 7 hours from Paris by train

It would be mean Paris to Portugal in two days – or to be precise 7 hours to Barcelona, one night in a hotel, before a five-and-half-hour train journey to Seville and a three-hour car journey. It was the quickest way without flying, as far as we could see.

We were about to book the tickets when friend who was travelling by rail through Europe mentioned the Interrail option.

I did Interrailing as an 18-year- old and it was a great way to spend a month travelling around Europe (and Morocco) but had never thought it could be an option for a quickish trip to Portugal and back.

But Interrail has changed a bit since 1996 and indeed since 1972 when it was first launched for under 21s.

Now it offers passes that can be used for 4, 5 or 7 days a month – perfect for travel to a few destinations in a short space of time.

And, this was the clincher – Interrail passes for under 11s are free if they are with an adult.

Well almost free, because in certain countries like France and Spain you still need to pay for seat reservations for anyone travelling.

But the cost of the passes for two adults, plus seat reservations were cheaper than just booking direct trains and much cheaper than flying (more on costs below).

The high-speed train from Barcelona to Seville. Photo: The Local

The Upsides

Let’s start with not having to wake up at 4am and arrive at the train station three hours before the train leaves just to check in a bag and then spend the next three hours queuing in various lines – bags, passport, security, boarding etc..

We arrived at Gare de Lyon around 30 minutes before the train left and boarded without queuing and the train departed on time.

Compare this with having to get a taxi or the RER train to Charles de Gaulle airport and then still find yourself in Paris three hours later as you queue to board. (I know this is not always the case but this summer the advice was to arrive three hours before your flight to check in bags.)

Plus there was no luggage limits on the train and no having to empty your bags at security because you left an old roll-on deodorant at the bottom of your bag.

Although rail stations in Spain do have airport style x-ray machines to check all luggage, they were very rapid and didn’t result in any long queues.

Add to this comfortable seats with leg room, a bar you can walk to and spend hours watching the beautiful French and Spanish landscape whizz by.

You arrive in the centre of town – in our case Barcelona – so there’s no need to get public transport or taxis to and from out of town airports. 

Spending a night in Barcelona was a great way to break the journey – albeit a bit expensive (see below).

And it all ran pretty much on time. Over five train journeys in four days we had 15 minutes of delay. Spain’s high-speed trains were fantastic.

To sum it up: when flying your holiday only really begins when you arrive at your final destination because these days the day spent travelling is one big headache, but with the train the holiday begins as soon as you leave the station.

It’s just far, far more relaxing.

heading back to Barcelona Sants station after a night in the Catalan capital. Photo: The Local.

The Downsides

But what about the kids, you say?

Yep this can be an issue. Travelling for 7 hours on a train is not easy with two young kids but if you come prepared and can think of 75 different ways to occupy them from drawing and playing cards to I-spy and “count my freckles slowly” then it’s possible the journey will be tantrum free. (Playing hide and seek on a train with 12 carriages isn’t advisable.)

And kids adapt, so the following day’s five and half hour journey from Barcelona to Seville was a breeze because they settled into the pace of life and by that point had worked out the code to get into my mobile phone.

One complaint was how long the TGV train took to get along the southern French coast. Does it really need to stop at Nimes, Montpellier, Beziers, Agde, Sete and Perpignan? Can’t local trains serve these stations and the TGV just head straight to Spain?

Another little gripe was the train food. Whilst buffet cars on SNCF and Renfe trains are great for a coffee or a beer they don’t really offer a selection of healthy meals, so you need to come prepared. We weren’t and spent a lot of money on crap food and drink during the trips.

But if you know this in advance you can bring whatever you like onto the train, with no nonsense about 100ml limits on liquid.

Cost comparison

Working out cost comparisons are hard and anyone looking to do a similar trip will need a calculator at hand. 

It’s hard to do a direct comparison between flying and taking the train because so much depends on what the prices are when you book, the route you want to take and how quickly you want to travel and whether to go first class or standard.

But for us at the time of booking (roughly two months in advance) flights from Paris to Faro were about €1,500 for four people, train tickets booked directly with SNCF and Renfe (not interrail) for four people were around €1,200 (this probably could have been much cheaper further in advance), whilst the Interrail option – 4 day passes plus seat reservations was around €810.

So on the face of it travelling by train, especially using Interrail passes, was cheaper – but then add on the cost of two nights in hotels in central Barcelona and there was no real financial benefit of going by train.

But then it was never all about money – what price on not having to spend three hours at Charles de Gaulle airport?

How easy is it to Interrail?

Interrail proved a great option for us, even though it was only a relatively short trip. It’s more suited to those looking to do multiple journeys through various countries, perhaps at a slower pace. But the kids being free was crucial for us, so other families should definitely explore the option.

The one downside to Interrailing through France and Spain is the requirement to book seat reservations for the high-speed trains.

Whilst this sounds fairly straightforward we couldn’t do it through the Interrail app or website so had to be done with Renfe directly. For most countries you can reserve seats through the Interrail app (more on this below).

With SNCF it required a lengthy phone call because we reserved the seats to make sure there were some available before getting the Interrail passes.

For Paris to Barcelona the reservations cost €34 for standard class seats or €48 for first class.

With Renfe it was more complicated although much cheaper (Around €10 to €12 a seat). We were told on the phone that to reserve seats with Interrail you have to do it either at a Spanish train station or by phone but only if you can pick up and pay for the reservations at a Spanish train station within a certain amount of time.

Neither of these were possible when booking from Paris back in May/June. But the helpful website Man at Seat 61 recommended going via the man behind the AndyBTravels website, who charges a small fee. A few emails were exchanged and our reservations for Barcelona to Seville arrived in the post a few days later. 

Renfe and SNCF could make it easier for Interrail passengers.

The Interrail mobile pass on the the Rail Planner app was very easy to use. It was just a case of adding the days when we were travelling and then adding the specific journeys.

This brought up a QR code for each trip but the ticket controllers were always more concerned about the seat reservations we had on paper.

But all went to plan.

 

Conclusion

Those days spent sitting drinking coffee, orange and beer (in separate cups) starring out of train windows at fields, hills, mountains, villages, beach and train platforms were part of the holiday.

I’d say that if you have a day or two to spare then travelling across Europe by train instead of plane is well worth it – yes, even with two young kids.

They might even thank you for it one day if we all help avert a climate disaster. 

Advice

It’s hard to give advice because each person has different requirements that need to be taken into account – whether number of passengers, time needed for travelling, destinations, cost etc.

But plan ahead and do the research to see what’s possible.

One bit of advice if you need to travel quickly is try keep connections to a minimum or give yourself plenty of time to make them.

My colleague Richard Orange had problems on his trip from Sweden to the UK via Denmark, Germany and Belgium because of delays and missed connections.

Useful links and extra info

You can explore Interrail pass options and prices by visiting the Interrail site here. The site offers plenty of info to help you plan your trip and reserve seats on trains if necessary.

The fantastic Man in Seat 61 guide to train travel across Europe is a must-read for anyone planning a trip. It has pages and pages of useful up to date info and can be viewed here.

It also has loads of information on how to use an Interrail pass and calculations to see whether it’s the best option – if you need help with the maths. The page can be viewed here.

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