(CNN) — Now is the summer of our dissatisfaction, Shakespeare wasn’t exactly writing in Richard III, but for air travelers in the US and Europe, that’s exactly what this summer is meant to be.
At airports, scenes of passengers queuing outside terminal doors or camping in departure lounges are becoming increasingly familiar as delays at security, check-in and immigration add to the chaos.
And then there is the luggage problem. At London’s Heathrow Airport, photos showing huge stacks of bags being separated from their owners have become emblematic of the experiences of many airmen, who face the frustration of having to reclaim lost possessions or waiting days for to find her again.
No quick fixes
Airports and airlines are struggling to replace skilled workers laid off during the pandemic.
Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images
All in all, air travel is a nightmare right now – even a gamble. And the high season is just beginning.
There don’t seem to be any quick fixes. This week, German airline Lufthansa warned passengers in an email that the situation “is unlikely to improve in the short term,” insisting stability would only be achieved in winter.
“Too many employees and resources are still missing, not only from our infrastructure partners, but also in some of our own areas,” it said. “Almost every company in our industry is currently hiring new employees, and several thousand are planned in Europe alone.”
So what’s up? Much of commercial aviation is almost rocket science, but the problems airlines and airports are currently facing are not. Instead, it’s about a much more normal business problem: staffing.
And the airline industry should have seen it coming.
Crowds and queues at airport terminals will become a feature of air travel in the summer of 2022.
“Given their own research, research my company and others have done, and their reservation systems, airline executives should have seen – and therefore known – that there was going to be strong demand for travel again,” says Henry Harteveldt, director at Market research and consulting company Atmosphere Research.
“Either they didn’t look at their own data or misread or misinterpreted it, but none of this should have surprised the airlines.”
In almost all cases, the problem is that too many experienced people have been laid off – either laid off or voluntarily laid off – during the pandemic, and airlines, airports and other key parts of the aviation system have not hired and qualified enough people to replace them .
This qualifying point is important. As airlines and airports know all too well, there is a whole process involved in getting someone the kind of security pass that will allow them to work on an airplane or at an airport gate.
In Great Britain, there is also the fact that after Brexit they will not be able to fall back on the pool of EU workers.
The actual work also often requires a fairly complicated familiarization, not least because many computer systems for air travel in the 1980s seem more at home visually than in the modern iPhone or Android world.
Addison Schonland, a partner at aeronautics analysis and reporting firm AirInsight, summarizes the sectors likely to be affected as “any part of the air travel system with employees”.
“Fixing is easy, but bringing people back with security clearance is difficult,” says Schonland. “Also, US airlines in particular have a reputation for being unreliable employers – the boom and bust cycles mean shaky careers – and the work requires skilled people and tempting work. Those people probably have more attractive opportunities now.”
Some of the problems lie in too much outsourcing.
Recipe for disruption
Piles of bags seized from their owners at London Heathrow Airport have become emblematic of the current air travel woes.
Takuya Matsumoto/The Yomiuri Shimbun/Reuters Connect
At many airports, particularly in Europe, key tasks such as check-in, security, baggage, boarding gates and airport operations are handled by staff working for third-party companies that airlines and airports hire. You’ll often see them in a bland uniform that’s not the same as your airline’s own employees.
These people do work that is, in some cases, pretty tough – like lifting sacks outside in snow and sunshine, working before dawn and late into the evening, and dealing with increasingly frustrated passengers.
Some of this is also a real issue of industrial relations.
For example, during the pandemic, British Airways asked some UK employees to take a 10% pay cut. Some workers have since increased their wages, but not Heathrow check-in staff, who are now poised to go on strike to do so. British Airways has said it is disappointed with the move and hopes to find a way to avoid it labor dispute.
No matter which side of the Atlantic you are on, there is a recipe for disruption.
In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration is struggling due to a shortage of air traffic controllers, says Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research.
“Covid-related health restrictions limited the FAA’s ability to hire and train new air traffic controllers in 2020 and 2021,” he says. “Also, air traffic controllers have to retire at the age of 56 and the calendar hasn’t stopped in those two years.
“The FAA is actively hiring people to become air traffic controllers, but the training process takes time. Airlines are now planning more flights to some destinations, particularly Florida, than the FAA can handle.
“As a result, even in good weather, the FAA occasionally has to give some flights longer, less direct routes that can cause delays in order to spread the load across their air traffic control centers.”
So what should aviators do?
The best advice I can give you as an aviation journalist who has never seen so much disruption is to book defensively.
— Consider alternatives to flying if you can travel by train, ship, bus or car in less than eight hours. Unless you’re traveling with people who have to go back to school in the fall, consider traveling in September or October rather than July or August.
— If you have to fly, Choose non-stop flights on connecting flights, subject to availability and affordability. Connections add complexity and increase vulnerability to cancellations or delays, particularly connections via locations where severe weather can occur during the summer.
— In Europe, Choose the smaller hubs with a reputation for efficiency and no major disruptions recently reported: Munich, Zurich and Vienna are the safest bets.
— Choose flights earlier in the day rather than later – meaning more options for same-day travel if your flight is canceled or significantly delayed. Fixed connections – fewer than a few – should be avoided whenever possible.
— Opt for airlines that offer many flights per day on one route rather than those with just one or two.
— Research what other options there are on a route. If you show up that day and there are thunderstorms in Dallas or Houston, can you ask the airline agent to route you through Chicago, Philadelphia, or Dulles instead?
– Some airlines are offering fast track check-in and security, lounge access and priority boarding as buy-up extras, and it’s a better deal than ever. Or in the US Consider TSA PreCheck. Log into your reservation every few weeks to see if there are any discounted upgrade options: It’s a great time to splurge for added convenience and Fast Track perks.
— Join your airline’s frequent flyer program. Not only do you get some miles, but most rebooking systems prioritize frequent flyers in some way – even those whose mileage balances are low. You can also use the airline’s app, which makes rebooking easier for you.
— If the rebooking options in the app do not work, Phone calls or social media can work. Airlines often respond to direct messages via Twitter. The platform is also good for airline, airport or even weather updates.
— Pack light and choose to only carry hand luggage if you can. If you have bags to check, keep a few days’ worth of clothes and all your essentials in your carry-on. Bring snacks and chargers and charge your devices with TV and movies. And bring the most important thing with you this summer – and on every trip: patience.
Good luck and feel free to ask questions on Twitter where you can find me as @thatjohn.
Pictured above: Passengers stand in a TSA screening line at Orlando International Airport, May 3. Credit: Kirby Lee/AP
Aviation journalist John Walton specializes in the passenger experience. With over a decade of experience in aircraft, seating, cabins, connectivity, digital, design, marketing and branding, he has a unique perspective on what defines the world’s greatest industry. He can be found on Twitter at @thatjohn.