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Strikes, slowdowns and stoppages: Europe’s travel chaos

This isn’t a happy time in European transport.

Airports are reporting hours-long queues to check-in and get through passenger screening, airlines are canceling flights, air traffic controllers are threatening to walk out, railway and metro workers are striking too.

From Brussels to Warsaw, from Amsterdam to London there are some common causes for the anger and chaos — the travel industry rebounded much faster than expected from COVID lockdowns, creating huge problems for companies that had fired baggage handlers, ticket sellers and airplane cabin crew, and now can’t rapidly staff up again.

“The more travel returns to normal, the more passengers you need to process and clear,” said a European Commission official. “Everybody underestimated the speed of the rebound.”

Then there’s the surge in inflation — caused in part by loose money measures to keep the economy afloat during the pandemic — that’s now prompting unions to demand steep pay hikes.

Travelers are stressing as the summer holidays approach and politicians worry about keeping budgets in check and limiting public rage.

It’s fast degenerating into a blame game.

Airlines are angry since they say they filed their summer schedules at the end of March, giving airports enough time to staff up. Airport bosses argue it takes them up to 16 weeks to get security clearance for workers, making it difficult to ramp up the workforce quickly.

“We’re emerging from a pandemic, there isn’t a playbook for this,” said Virginia Lee from airport lobby ACI Europe. “We were in the middle of Omicron and anybody that had the idea that we should have been holding a recruitment drive in the middle of a pandemic — either you’ve got a crystal ball or you are profoundly reckless.”

Unfriendly skies

Anyone planning to fly had better pack some patience.

On Monday, Brussels Airport was forced to cancel all 232 departing scheduled flights because of a strike by screening staff.

“It is a complicated week,” said Nathalie Pierard, a spokesperson for Brussels Airport, adding that “such actions obviously do not work in our favor” for an industry struggling to return to business-as-usual following a damaging pandemic. “We are less than two weeks away from the summer vacations and therefore we have more and more passengers.”

The airport walkout was part of a general strike in Belgium that also affected parts of Brussels’ urban transit network.

Geneviève Frydman, who works in risk management for Amazon, was one of the many stranded passengers. She was supposed to fly from Prague to Brussels on Monday afternoon but was notified at 11 p.m. on Sunday that her flight was canceled.

“My frustration was that there was no support for passengers. It was very much a ‘we can’t help you, there’s no solution to how we can help you, there’s no timeline that we can provide you,’” she said. “Not only are you stranded in a different country, but you are not provided with any guidance from the airline, which you trusted to help you get home.”

The situation on the ground in Brussels, a regional hub and Belgium’s largest airport, is just a snapshot of what’s happening across Europe.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport has imposed a ceiling on the flights it will handle due to a staff shortage.

Workers from both Ryanair and Brussels Airlines have announced strikes for this week, while Lufthansa has already scrapped 1,000 July flights amid staff shortages and airport bottlenecks at Frankfurt, Germany’s largest airport.

Meanwhile, low-cost airline easyJet said it was forced to cut thousands of flights planned for this summer. On Monday, Heathrow Airport asked airlines to cancel 10 percent of flights thanks to staff shortages that left passengers waiting for hours to retrieve their baggage.

Industry bosses say a big part of the problem is that staff dumped on furlough or fired outright during the pandemic have decided not to return to an industry offering minimum wages and tough working conditions.

“The whole sector has suffered a lot,” said Pierard. “There have been layoffs, and now, little by little, we are looking for staff again because the recovery is underway.”

Added to that is a demand for more money, spurred by rising inflation.

The U.K. is bracing for a three-day rail strike that begins Tuesday that will see about 40,000 workers taking part and just a fifth of normally scheduled services running. Unions want a 7 percent pay hike, while the government is balking.

“Inflation busting pay increases will lead to a spiral which we want to avoid,” Treasury Minister Simon Clarke told the BBC.

Some Italian transport workers walked out on Friday over a pay dispute, affecting trains, buses and ferries.

In Warsaw, tensions are rising between air traffic controllers and Poland’s Air Navigation Services Agency. The two sides struck a temporary deal in April preventing a walkout over pay and post-COVID work conditions that would have crippled air services to the country’s largest airport. Now unions are complaining that the agency hasn’t held up its side of the bargain and are threatening to quit.

With people across the Continent increasingly frazzled and angry, union bosses are hoping passengers don’t take it out on workers.

‘The aviation workers cannot take it anymore,” said Livia Spera from the European Transport Workers’ Federation. “They have been under significant pressure for quite some time now, and it is clear this has reached boiling point.”

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