LONDON — At 5:30am on a weekday, Heathrow airport departure boards flashed optimistically with hundreds of flights on time.
It wasn’t long before the airport was caught in an almost daily meltdown.
Within hours, traffic jams formed as lines converged and merged. Passengers clashed as people trying to get to ticket counters and bag drop locations collided with an overflow line for those waiting for a different row of kiosks. In the early afternoon, travelers with missing bags were stranded outside a lost luggage office, which had closed without explanation.
On that day, airlines canceled a total of 23 flights, about 2% of the airport’s incoming and outgoing scheduled flights, according to tracking site FlightAware. Almost a third of the airport’s scheduled flights were delayed. On the same day in summer 2019, 0.5% of flights were canceled and around 23% were delayed.
That is the state of international air travel this summer. Travelers have flooded airports, which have largely grounded air travel for the first time since the pandemic, to board planes. Airlines and airports are struggling to hire all staff to keep up with the rush. On Tuesday, London Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest international hubs, announced it would limit the number of passengers passing through its terminals and urged airlines to stop selling tickets for travel from the airport for the remainder of the summer.
“In recent weeks … we have begun to see periods of service dropping to unacceptable levels,” Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said in a written statement on Tuesday.
Airports have asked passengers not to get to their flights too early, as the rush of early passengers is adding to the strain. But just minutes after 5am last Tuesday, the Heathrow Express, a 15-minute fast train from central London to the airport, was packed. At the airport itself, all but one of the day’s 1,184 scheduled flights showed up on flight tracking pages as operational and on time.
Forty-five minutes later, the airport announcer announces one of the first cancellations of the day: a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul. In Terminal 2’s departure hall, the check-in lines of Austrian Airlines, Eurowings, Swiss and Brussels Airlines ran in an overflow maze – an angled section divided by supports placed on the other side of the terminal’s main thoroughfare.
By 9 a.m., the flight delay had reached 21. Lines of people were everywhere.
“This is the new normal,” said a Heathrow airport worker. She said the security line passed the check-in station area and exited the terminal doors over the weekend.
Carla Leone, a 20-year-old student flying home to San Francisco, was waiting in the United check-in line. She had been in Copenhagen the day before when a pilots’ strike broke out at Scandinavia’s largest airline, SAS. The airline then filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US. It said it would cancel 50% of flights on each day of the walkout.
“People took pictures of the crowd,” Ms Leone said of Copenhagen. “You couldn’t tell where the lines ended or began.”
The airports blame a lack of staff for the chaos. Airlines in Europe began later than their US counterparts to rehire all the employees they laid off during the pandemic. With so much European travel being cross-border, the industry could only come into effect once international Covid travel restrictions began to fall and demand was reclaimed.
Austrian Air said it was facing staffing shortages and handling issues at many European airports, which could result in longer wait times. It said it had already hired 200 additional flight attendants in anticipation of demand this summer.
Heathrow began hiring more staff in November last year, the airport said. By the end of July, it is expected that there will be as many employees working in security as before the pandemic. Many are not yet fully trained and deficiencies, particularly in ground handling, are still a problem, the airport said this week.
A particular bottleneck has become the security checks required for new employee access to enter some parts of the airport. Menzies Aviation, a groundhandling company that works at Heathrow, takes about two weeks to hire and train new staff. It takes an average of 65 days, sometimes up to 90 days, to get security clearances, said CEO Philipp Joeinig.
By 11am, delays at Heathrow had increased to 52. At baggage claim, baggage would be lined up near each carousel and at other locations on the floor. Arriving passengers said the suitcase jam was the worst they had ever seen.
Baggage problems are a particular concern at many airports due to staff shortages as well as a series of separate technical disruptions at Heathrow, Toronto and Paris airports. Swissport International Ltd., a flight dispatcher and baggage handler, currently employs approximately 17,000 positions within the company.
Before Covid-19, the company employed 65,000 people. At the end of December, according to a spokesman, there were 45,000. The company offers sign-up bonuses including $5,000 at some US airports
Victoria Hammersten was waiting to speak to someone at the lost luggage counter at Heathrow at 1pm when staff closed it without explanation.
The 23-year-old had missed her flight from Oslo to London the day before because the security and check-in lines there were so congested. Later that day, she managed to get into another one, but her bags disappeared in the process.
She would give up if someone opened the counter again four hours later at 5 p.m
Heathrow has been particularly hard hit by baggage riots. The airline suffered a conveyor belt failure in June and had to store hundreds of bags in the hall outside the arrivals hall. The conveyor belt is fixed, but the problem caused weeks of delays for many passengers attempting to retrieve their luggage.
Siebe Schoneveld, 23, and his girlfriend, Milena Rendon, 22, were at Heathrow trying to get answers about bags that went missing three weeks earlier when Ms Rendon was on a trip from Mexico to Germany. She then flew on to stay with Mr Schoneveld in London, where the airline promised to deliver the lost bags.
The two had called the airline every day to no avail. “I don’t have much confidence anymore,” said Mr. Schoneveld. He was recently in Amsterdam, which he described as “madness”. Schiphol Airport, another of Europe’s busiest, had imposed restrictions on the number of passengers allowed to enter the airport on June 16 in a bid to reduce delays. The airport’s website advises travelers to wear comfortable clothing and shoes while waiting – adding that if you’re queuing outside, “you might want to put on a jacket”.
Ms Rendon’s luggage was delivered to the couple later that week.
Markus Märkisch, 52, had arrived at Heathrow six hours early with a packed lunch to prepare for long lines for his return journey to Cologne, Germany.
On his flight to London the week before, it had taken him four hours to get through Cologne airport’s security lines, which had wrapped around the terminal and bled through the entrance. He made this flight, but only because he flew late.
Tatiana Chapire, 44, traveled from London to San Francisco with her two young sons. Their United flight was delayed two hours because the airline told them it was a staffing issue.
“We see it everywhere,” says Ms Chapire, whose family waited seven hours for a flight to Portugal last month.
As of 2pm, Heathrow was experiencing delays and cancellations, and check-in, baggage drop and security queues grew longer.
An American Airlines flight to Miami took off three and a half hours late. The plane had arrived late from Charlotte, NC, due to crew rest requirements and a maintenance issue, the airline said.
British Airways had already canceled 16 arriving and departing flights for the day the previous week, part of reductions the airline had pledged to ease airport congestion. Around two-thirds were originally planned after 2 p.m
Other mishaps and various mishaps made things worse. Shortly after 4 p.m., a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight that was supposed to come from Amsterdam was canceled due to so-called operational disruptions. Without a plane in London, KLM also canceled the return flight.
Eurowings has canceled a return flight between London and Hamburg. According to a spokesman, one crew member was ill and on-call reserves had already left to help other disruptions. A British Airways flight to Marseille was delayed due to a technical problem with the plane, which required a new jet to be dispatched. Another British Airways flight was delayed two hours due to a medical incident and then had a crew change.
Rick Delainey, a 51-year-old Canadian, was on a trip to Italy for a group of families at his children’s high school outside the Terminal 2 arrivals area. The 11-day getaway was originally scheduled for March 2020. The group had already missed two days in Venice and one in Florence due to flight cancellations and missed connections.
Her first Air Canada flight was canceled, he said, because there was no crew. They had been up for 30 hours trying to find their way to Italy. “To be honest, I have no idea where we’re going to end up tonight,” he said. “If there was an opportunity to go home now, I would take it.”
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https://www.wsj.com/articles/heathrow-europe-travel-flight-delays-cancellations-11657720958 12 Hours of Misery at Heathrow: Huge Crowds, Lost Bags, Endless Cancellations