Europe's airports are a mess. Here's how summer travelers can 'prepare for the worst.'

·6 min read

Travelers heading to Europe this summer will have to pack a healthy supply of patience in addition to their passports.

While passengers beginning their travels in Amsterdam tend to face the longest lines, Devin Matte said a flight delay leaving Boston caused him to miss his connection to Norway earlier this month.

The Somerville, Massachusetts-based software engineer can attest to the customer service chaos travelers are facing in Europe firsthand.

"I talked to one guy who had flown from Atlanta to Amsterdam the night before, and he had to sleep in the airport. People in the airport, they said it was about six hours to get through security," said Matte, 24.

When trying to rebook his flight, the customer service agent advised him to give himself at least six hours to get through security if he wound up leaving the airport to stay in a hotel overnight.

While the pilot shortage has led to cancellations and delays in the U.S., a host of other problems overseas are leading to long lines at major airports across the continent.

Part of the problem is pent-up demand from the COVID-19 era, and a euro that's weak compared to the dollar is making international travel more accessible to Americans this summer. Plus, the U.S. recently rescinded the rule that required all travelers arriving from abroad to test for COVID-19 before departure.

But the airport issues are driven more by staffing levels that have remained the same as they were during the pandemic, creating major headaches for travelers and airlines alike.

What's causing the chaos at Europe's airports?

It all comes down to staffing.

Earlier in the pandemic when countries closed their borders, many European airlines curtailed their operations even more severely than those in the U.S.

"In the U.S., domestic travel was never restricted except (in) Hawaii," said Brett Snyder, president of the Cranky Flier blog and Cranky Concierge service. "In a place like Amsterdam, there is no domestic travel, so for a time, you couldn't do anything. Maybe that put them behind the eight ball in terms of getting staffed up."

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His view was supported by Alex Cruz, former CEO of British Airways and current board member at Fetcherr, an AI firm focusing on airline pricing and revenue management.

"Many European airlines have staff that are trained but do not have the security clearance to go airside," Cruz said.

"It's not just the airlines, it's the security agencies, and it’s not just them, it’s people who fuel the airplanes, it’s the TSA equivalents in Europe and around the world," he told USA TODAY.

Brigitte Armand, president of tour operator Eurobound, said this summer has been the most hectic travel season of her career.

“You should see what I look like right now to give you an idea of how my life is going," she said. “I’ve owned Eurobound for almost 27 years now, and I’ve never, ever experienced anything like this. ... Everybody is still short-staffed."

What airlines and airports are doing

Unfortunately, Europe's aviation struggles this summer can't be solved overnight.

It takes time to get new employees cleared to work at or past security, and without enough staff to handle the number of travelers, many airports are seeing extra-long lines this summer.

"I can’t imagine they’d be willing to loosen security procedures," Snyder said. "Sometimes when you’re at a baseball game and the lines get too long and they say, 'Ah, screw it, come in.' I don’t think we’re going to see that happen at an airport."

One of the most heavily affected airports in Europe this summer is Schiphol in Amsterdam, which has seen especially long lines at security.

Matte, who was traveling from Boston to visit his family near Oslo, Norway, said all the customer service representatives he interacted with from Delta and KLM were helpful and professional.

In response to the issues in Amsterdam, the airport authority in charge of Schiphol announced passenger caps in July and August and acknowledged that the restrictions were the result of a lack of staffing.

"A tight labor market has led to there being too few security employees to perform the necessary checks on all the travelers wanting to fly this summer," the airport's managers said in a statement. "The maximum number of travelers that Schiphol can handle varies per day and goes up to 67,500 on the busiest days in July and up to 72,500 in August."

Reuters reports that represents about a 16% reduction in the airport's planned capacity for the summer.

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Travelers line up to check in at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport in the Netherlands on June 21.
Travelers line up to check in at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport in the Netherlands on June 21.

KLM, which has its main hub at Schiphol, said in a statement that it is limiting the number of tickets available to passengers originating in Amsterdam and does not expect to make major cuts to its schedule.

Airports in London also are capping capacity for the summer, and wary travelers are keeping their eyes on other hubs including Dublin, Brussels and Hamburg, Germany.

Meanwhile, airlines and airports are trying to staff up as quickly as they can.

"In Europe, we’re likely to have a Quarter 4 that will be less busy than the summer and because of these huge ramp-up efforts that are taking place across Europe, but we expect Quarter 4 to be more enabled for regular operations," Cruz said.

Tips for travelers

Being patient and allowing extra time will be crucial for traveling through Europe's airports this summer.

"Hope for the best and prepare for the worst, no matter where someone is going," said Kyle Potter, editor of the website Thrifty Traveler.

"The prospect for problems is higher than ever. If you’re flying from Europe back to the United States, I would start telling people four-plus hours, even more, if you’re checking a bag," Potter said. "I would encourage everyone to pack in a carry-on. The problems we’re seeing with checked bags are atrocious."

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Snyder, of Cranky Flier, added that travelers should take advantage of any perks they have available to smooth things along.

"If you’re in a premium cabin or you’re an elite member in a frequent flyer program, you may have a leg up," he said.

If your travel plans are flexible, Snyder added, it's a good idea to try to start or end your trip at smaller airports that are less likely to see big crowds.

"The best advice for sure is do not deal with Amsterdam right now," Snyder said.

Armand, from Eurobound, added that travelers who aren't already committed to visiting Europe this summer might be better off waiting until the fall.

“We’re not even taking requests for July. We can’t, it’s not even manageable," she said, adding that her company has no control when an airline cancels or reschedule flights, but has to work extra hard to rebook their customers whose travel plans are affected.

“This problem of staffing is making our jobs very difficult," she added.

And, for travelers who still plan to fly this summer, Armand offered some practical advice:

“Pack clean underwear in your carry-on. You don’t know where you’re going to get stuck.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Europe travel troubles are piling up: How to avoid airport nightmares

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