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Will Germany manage to tackle its airport chaos this summer?

Emergency plans to fill staffing gaps at airports are underway - but Germany's largest airline says disruptions could continue. Here's what you need to know.

Düsseldorf airport chaos
Crowds at Düsseldorf airport on the first weekend of the summer break. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | David Young

What’s going on?

There have been warnings about impending flight chaos over the summer holidays for several weeks now following nightmarish scenes at airports over the Whitsun weekend. 

On Friday, when schools in the populous state of North-Rhine Westphalia broke up for the summer, those fears appeared to be have been realised. 

As The Local reported on Monday, airports in the region have struggled to cope with the sudden surge in passenger numbers. Holidaymakers were forced to wait for hours just to clear security at Düsseldorf and Cologne airports and there were reports of mix-ups at the baggage reclaim stations.

Hundreds of passengers were also sent home from Düsseldorf airport on Saturday evening without their bags and asked to return the next day to collect them. 

To make matters worse, airlines are also struggling to run their services on schedule and flight cancellations are becoming the new normal. 

READ ALSO: ‘Arrive three hours early’: Your tips for flying in Germany this summer

According to regional newspaper, the Rheinische Post, around 70 flights were cancelled at Düsseldorf at short notice over the weekend. 

The news follows confirmation from Lufthansa that at least 3,200 flights have been taken off the schedule this summer. Germany’s largest airline had initially announced that it would be scrubbing a 1,000 flights in the month of July, but later went on to add that 2,200 further services would be cancelled during the busy summer months.

Lufthansa’s subsidiaries Eurowings and Swiss have also cancelled flights in the run up to the vacation period, while EasyJet has also confirmed that a “small number” of flights will be taken off its schedule. 

How is the government planning to tackle this?

According to reports in Bild am Sonntag, the German government wants to step in and alleviate some of the staffing pressure by allowing German companies to recruit thousands of short-term workers from abroad. 

Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) said he was working alongside Labour Minister Hubertus Heil and Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (both SPD) to “relieve the staff shortages at German airports and present a temporary solution”.

“The Federal Government is planning to allow urgently needed personnel from abroad to enter Germany for temporary work,” Heil confirmed on Sunday.

Ralph Beisel, CEO of the German Airports Association (ADV), told DPA the staff would be recruited from Turkey, the Balkan states and other countries for a period of up to three months. 

Passengers at Düsseldorf airport

Passengers with wheeled suitcases at Düsseldorf airport over the weekend. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Banneyer

But the opposition CDU/CSU parties have criticised the plans and argued that the problem should be solved with German workers instead.

“The airport chaos could be permanently solved with domestic skilled workers,” CDU transport policy spokesman, Thomas Bareiß (CDU), told the Rheinische Post. 

Estimates from the German Economics Institute suggest that there is currently a shortage of about 7,200 skilled workers at German airports. Airport and airline bosses fired thousands of employees in an effort to cut costs during the Covid pandemic and others sought new work during the crisis.

With highly infectious Omicron subvariants tearing through the country, the industry is also having to reckon with regular staff illness and the self-isolation regulations. This is compounding the severe staffing issues.

READ ALSO: Germany to ‘recruit workers from abroad’ to ease airport chaos

Could the situation improve in summer?

If the government lays the groundwork for an easy recruitment and relocation process, around 2,000 airport workers could enter Germany as early as July. But this may still not be enough to completely make up for the shortfalls.

So far, just one of Germany’s 16 states has commenced its school holidays. The remaining 15 are due to go on holiday in July and August. 

In more disheartening news for passengers, the CEO of Lufthansa has warned that the current staffing issues won’t be resolved until at least winter this year – or possibly 2023. 

In an open letter to customers, CEO Carsten Spohr said the sudden increase in air traffic from nearly zero at the height of the Covid travel restrictions to around 90 percent meant the industry could not deliver its usual “reliability, robustness and punctuality”.

Düsseldorf airport chaos

Long queues at Düsseldorf airport over the weekend. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | David Young

“We can only apologise to you for this and we also want to be completely honest,” Spohr wrote. In the coming weeks, with passenger numbers continuing to rise, whether for holidays or business trips, the situation will hardly improve in the short term.”

The CEO said that the group, which announced it was laying off 30,000 staff during the pandemic, was in the process of rapidly recruiting thousands of new workers. “However, the stabilising effect from this will only be felt in the coming winter,” he added.

In an interview on Welt TV, Transport Minister Wissing expressed dismay at the fact that the industry had not started dealing with its staffing issues sooner.

“Securing skilled staff is not an issue that is new, everyone knows that this is one of the most important tasks,” the FDP politician said. 

In another letter addressed to employees, Spohr admitted that the management had made mistakes over the previous two years.

“Under the pressure of the more than €10 billion in pandemic-related losses, did we overdo it with savings in one place or another? Sure we did,” he said. “Quite frankly, for our management team and for me personally, this was the first pandemic we had to deal with.”

READ ALSO:

What else can be done? 

As well as the efforts of government and private companies, Germany’s United Services Union (Verdi) is also stepping in to support the struggling industry.

On Tuesday, the union called on Lufthansa subsidiary Eurowings to attend a short-notice crisis summit in order to find joint solutions for employees and passengers over summer.

Verdi pointed to the recent layoffs carried out by airlines in the Lufthansa Group, including Eurowings, and said that the situation was placing “enormous physical and psychological strain” on employees.

Police officers at Düsseldorf airport

Police officers keep an eye on passengers at Düsseldorf airport. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | David Young

“High levels of sick leave and employee resignations are the result,” they wrote. “This subsequently results in flight cancellations with angry passengers and chaos at the airports.” 

Marvin Reschinsky, Verdi’s negotiator at Eurowings, said he was confident of finding a solution with the airline that could help ease the situation. 

“We are optimistic that with mutual determination we can succeed in finding solutions to the current situation that are in the interests of both employees and passengers,” Reschinsky said. “This is necessary to safeguard holiday traffic again.”

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DEUTSCHE BAHN

ICE 3neo: Deutsche Bahn’s speediest train makes first trip in Germany

The high-speed train took off for the first time with paying passengers on the Frankfurt-Cologne route.

ICE 3neo: Deutsche Bahn's speediest train makes first trip in Germany

The new express trains can reach a top speed of 320 kilometres per hour – up from the previous 300 km/hour – and will mainly travel on special “speedways”, initially between Dortmund, Cologne, Stuttgart and Munich. 

Connections to Brussels and Amsterdam are set to follow in 2024. The trains will be featured on Deutsche Bahn’s new schedule set to come out on December 11th. 

READ ALSO: Everything that changes in Germany in December 2022

From the outside, the Siemens-built train looks nearly identical to the current ICE 3 model, but the main improvements can be seen from the inside, said DB in a statement. 

Above all, the new trains boast better lighting, mobile radio-transparent windows and space for eight bicycles. In addition, a fast lifting platform has been built to make it easier for wheelchair users or people with disabilities to get on board.     

Deutsche Bahn ordered a total of 73 ICE 3neo trains from manufacturer Siemens, four of which have already been delivered, it said. 

The last train is to be delivered in 2029 at the latest, with the new line-up to cost Deutsche Bahn around €2.5 billion.

Trying to get up to speed

The trains are urgently needed, said DB passenger transport board member Michael Peterson. “Reliability is not good at Deutsche Bahn at the moment,” and will “remain the case for a certain period of time”. 

READ ALSO: ‘A disaster’: How did train travel in Germany get so bad?

The reason for this, he said, is that Deutsche Bahn is working at full speed to modernise its rail system, which has led to several delays, rerouted services and in some cases cancellations.

In addition to the ICE 3neo, a total of almost 140 somewhat slower ICE 4s are set to join the fleet. 

According to Peterson, more than 450 ICE trains are set to join the network by the end of the decade – about 100 more than at present. 

Vocabulary

maximum speed – (die) Höchstgeschwindigkeit

wheelchair user – (der) Rohlstuhlfahrer

equipped – ausgestattet

reliability – (die) Verlässlichkeit

We’re aiming to help our readers improve their German by translating vocabulary from some of our news stories. Did you find this article useful? Let us know.

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