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Strikes and queues: How airline passengers in Europe face summer travel chaos

Staff shortages, IT glitches, long queues and strike action - there have been chaotic scenes at airports around Europe already. With the summer holidays ahead here's the forecast for summer travel in the 9 countries covered by The Local.

Strikes and queues: How airline passengers in Europe face summer travel chaos
Illustration photo: People queuing at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. (Photo by PIERRE VERDY / AFP)

France

In common with many other European countries France is facing staff shortages this summer and the aviation sector is particularly affected.

ANALYSIS Why France is facing a severe worker shortage this summer

Long queues have already been reported at Paris airports, especially for long-haul flights, and passengers are advised to check carefully the airline’s recommendations for arrival times. Outside Paris fewer problems have been reported, but unions have warned travellers to expect delays over the summer as passenger volumes increase.

Paris airports were hit by strike action on Thursday and further strikes have been called for July unless the workers’ demands – for a €300 salary increase to cope with the rising cost of living – are met.

Outside of Paris no strikes are scheduled – but it’s hardly unknown for French airport and airline unions to call strikes once the summer holidays begin. You can find the latest on our travel section HERE.

Away from air travel the picture is less gloomy, with no specific problems reported on French railways.

READ ALSO 6 European cities less than 7 hours from France by train

If you’re travelling from the UK there are reports of delays at British airports, the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras and at ferry ports, but the services themselves are mostly running as normal. Remember that since Brexit there are extra restrictions on travelling to France from the UK

Spain

In April 2022, Spain managed to recover 85 percent of the international tourists it received during the same month in 2019, as the country hopes to slowly edge towards the record 83.7 million holidaymakers it received in the last year before the Covid-19 pandemic. 

But just like is happening across much of Europe, it may be a case of too much too soon for Spain’s travel machine to cope. 

Flagship carrier Iberia has reported that an estimated 15,000 passengers have missed their flight connections at Madrid’s Barajas airport since March as a result of huge queues at passport control, a situation that’s being replicated across other Spanish airports due to a combination of reduced staff, increased travel and UK holidaymakers – now non-EU citizens – not being able to use e-gates.

Spain’s Interior Ministry has reacted by announcing it will deploy an extra 500 border guards at the country’s 12 busiest airports as well as allowing British holidaymakers to use e-gates as neighbour Portugal has done.

READ MORE: How Spain is tackling airport chaos

Then there’s the not-so-small matter of hundreds of flight cancellations by Easyjet, Lufthansa, Eurowings, TUI and more airlines due to a lack of staff, IT glitches and other reasons, with many of these flights being to Spain. 

Ryanair’s Spain cabin crew have also now confirmed their strike in late June and July, after talks between Spanish unions and the low-cost airline broke down. 

On Tuesday June 21st, Easyjet cabin crew announced they will also be going on strike on July 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 15th, 16th, 17th, 29th, 30th and 31st to protest against their low wages.

Italy

Italy appears to have escaped the worst of the disruption seen elsewhere in Europe, with no reports so far of chaotic scenes or long lines at Italian airports. But that’s not to say travel to or from the country is guaranteed to be trouble-free this summer.

Flight delays and cancellations are expected on Saturday June 25th, as pilots and crew from Ryanair, Malta Air and CrewLink have announced a nationwide 24-hour walkout in Italy over wages and working conditions.

Italian trade unions representing airline workers warned earlier this month that there may be “a long series of staged actions which will run through the entire summer” after dozens of flights were delayed or cancelled on June 8th amid protests by cabin crew and pilots working for low-cost airlines.

Transport strikes of all types are a common occurrence in Italy throughout the summer months, with rail services and local public transit most recently disrupted last Friday.

Airports in Italy however don’t seem to have been hit by the severe staffing shortages seen in some countries, likely due to the country’s ban on layoffs amid the pandemic and financial incentives offered to companies for keeping staff on reduced hours instead of firing them.

It remains to be seen whether things will continue to run as smoothly at airports once Italy’s long summer holidays begin on June 20th, with many Italian families planning to travel abroad this summer for the first time since before the pandemic.

Germany

Germany is also struggling with the increasing demand for travel coupled with staff shortages.

Transport Minister Volker Wissing warned recently that the country is facing major disruption to air travel and called for a nationwide recruitment drive. But he better get a move on. Passengers are already reporting long waits at airports while queuing at security, and Germany’s biggest airline Lufthansa said it was cancelling 900 services around Germany and Europe this July. Despite the reduced timetable, Lufthansa said there could still be problems. 

And passengers will also have to watch out for the possibility of strikes. On Friday, for instance, Germany’s Verdi Union called on Easyjet cabin crew staff in the Berlin-Brandenburg area to walk out from 5am-10am in a wages dispute, resulting in disruption. 

Regional train travel in Germany could also be tricky in popular areas. The €9 monthly ticket for public transport means that some regional train services have been overcrowded. During the recent holiday weekend, train staff described chaotic scenes, with people not being allowed to board trains. 

Sweden

The big logjam in Sweden is at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport, where staffing issues have led to long queues and missed flights since mid-May, particularly on weekends. 

On Saturday, the crowding and queuing at Arlanda’s outbound Terminal 5 was so severe that travellers had to be diverted to Terminals 2 and 4, with the road to Terminal 5 closed, and the Arlanda Express rail link ceasing stopping there. The airport’s operator Swedavia is now advising passengers not to come too far in advance of their flights, and police are advising passengers not to bring their cars. 

The airline has said it expects the delays to continue throughout the summer, but police expect the crowding to decrease this week with fewer queues than over the weekend. 

Sweden’s other main airport, at Landvetter in Gothenburg, is not suffering the same staffing issues, according to the Göteborgs-Posten newspaper, as the number of passengers seeking to fly from the airport has not spiked to the same extent. 

Scandinavia’s SAS airline is also likely to see cancellations in June after 1,000 pilots said they would go on strike. The strikes, announced by pilots unions in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, will begin on June 23rd if the company fails to reach a deal with unions. 

Austria

So far, Austria has got through a wave of chaos sweeping Europe relatively unscathed. However, there have been a few reports of delays and cancellations.

“The passengers already have to wait an hour at check-in, then another hour at the security. I have already been insulted by aggressive passengers”, an anonymous employee at the Vienna International Airport told Austrian media.

Representatives from the Vienna Airport operator have denied the reports. Still data shows that the recipe for trouble is already in place in the alpine country, with increasing numbers of travellers.

READ ALSO: Will Austria see travel chaos in airports this summer?

The situation is far from dire, though, and most jobs were saved through the government scheme known as Kurzarbeit. Companies could get subsidies as long as they kept staff and refrained from firing. 

The spokesperson for the Vienna International Airport has told Austrian media that they currently have about 80 percent of personnel from before the pandemic – while passenger levels are at about 65 to 70 percent of those from 2019.

It remains to be seen if that will be enough to avoid chaos just as people go on their summer vacations.

Switzerland

With the exception of “high-volume” travel peaks like Easter, Ascension and Pentecost, Swiss airports have not been overly impacted by overcrowding.

At Geneva airport, the situation is “relatively under control”, according to Sandy Bouchat, the airport’s spokesperson.

However, with the summer holidays around the corner, “we are all the more vigilant, as we expect a sharp increase in traffic”, she added.

In Zurich, the situation is relatively calm as well, though, like Geneva, it is preparing to handle more passengers in the coming weeks.

The airport has a useful site where passengers can see the situation at check-in counters on a given day.

Basel’s EuroAirport tends to be busy for two reasons: it has a number of low-budget airlines like EasyJet and Ryanair, and it also lies on the borders of Switzerland, France and Germany, accounting for the influx of passengers from all three countries.

This map shows the real-time road traffic information to and from the airport, which is helpful in estimating the expected wait times.

Also, while it is difficult to know right now whether this move will create overcrowding at airports, the national airline SWISS has cancelled or reduced a number of its flights from both Zurich and Geneva, and outsourced some routes to codeshare carriers.  

SWISS is also impacted by personnel shortage as it is among few airlines that emains firm in requiring all its pilots and flight attendants be immunised against Covid: in all, around 150 unvaccinated flight crews are not permitted to fly; nor enough fit-to-fly cabin crews may lead to more cancellations.

READ MORE: Which flights have SWISS airlines cut ahead of summer season?

Denmark

Long delays were reported at Copenhagen Airport last month, with the airport warning passengers it expected “to be very busy” during the late spring public holidays. These long weekends have now passed and the airport earlier said it expected to be fully staffed by June.

Staff shortages at security checks, caused by a lengthy rehiring process following the Covid-19 crisis, were blamed for crowds and long queues at Copenhagen Airport during the spring. 

In a May 19th statement on its website, Copenhagen Airport advised passengers travelling outside of the spring public holidays to arrive two hours prior to departure for European travel, and three hours before departure for travel to destinations outside of Europe.

Other Danish airports have been less severely affected. The smaller Aalborg Airport, for example, said this week that it did not expect excessive queueing this summer because it did not let any staff go last winter when passenger numbers were down.

Flagship Scandinavian airline SAS is meanwhile mired in a debt crisis that has the potential to affect a significant number of passengers in coming weeks and months. The airline in February announced a major cost cutting plan and has since reported quarterly losses of 1.5 billion Swedish kronor.

Although the Danish government has said it is prepared to back the company in the right circumstances by increasing its share, Sweden has made the reverse decision. On top of this, a major pilots’ strike is looking increasing likely after talks between SAS and pilots’ trade unions broke down.

Norway

So far, Norway’s airports have remained relatively free of queues and disruption. Avinor, the state-owned company operating the country’s airports, remains confident that disruption shouldn’t be too severe this summer

“It’s a staffing issue (airport delays), and here in Norway, we are much better equipped than other European countries, thanks to measures taken during the pandemic,” Øystein Løwer, press officer of Avinor, told VG. 

“During the pandemic, we had a clear crisis package from the state, which made it possible to retain workers for long periods. This, in turn, meant that employees at the airports (in Norway) kept their jobs and were able to return to work when Norway reopened,” the press officer explained. 

However, while airports are equipped to deal with queues, travellers are still facing disruption thanks to more than 50 scheduled departures out of Norwegian airports and their return flights being cancelled due to a aircraft technician strike, which could escalate further if wage demands are not met.

Additionally, around 1,000 pilots with Scandinavian airline SAS could go on strike later this month after trade unions issued a strike notice. Pilots in Norway, Denmark and Sweden have all said they would strike. Around 2,000 bookings with airline Flyr could also be disrupted by the delayed delivery of a Boeing aircraft to its fleet.

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DRIVING

What’s it like driving from Scandinavia to the UK with a young family?

With the cost of airline tickets increasingly discouraging, is driving from Scandinavia to the UK becoming a more attractive option? The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett gave it a try.

What’s it like driving from Scandinavia to the UK with a young family?

This summer has seen the return of large-scale international travel after a couple of Covid-hit years that have not been a picnic for anyone.

While the end of restrictions came as a relief, severe delays and disruptions at airports have added a new uncertainty around travel in 2022.

Scandinavia has not been an exception to this, with strikes at Scandinavian airline SAS and delays at Copenhagen and other airports among the problems faced by the sector.

Additionally, the increasing price of airline tickets in a time when inflation is hitting living costs across the board has become another factor discouraging air travel.

Finally, there’s the impact of air travel on climate to be considered. So is there an alternative?

The plan

Unlike colleagues who have made long distance journeys from France and Sweden respectively by rail, our plan was to make the trip from our home in Denmark to the UK by car.

There are a few reasons we picked this less climate-friendly option. I’ll readily admit they were driven (no pun intended) by our own needs, and not those of the planet. I hope we can offset this by using the train more than the car for longer journeys within Denmark, where costs are competitive.

Once we decided not to take our usual Ryanair flight, we only really considered driving. This is primarily because we have a toddler (age two), and felt that on such a long journey, the ability to control the timing and length of our stops would be crucial.

Secondly, the route would have taken longer and been more difficult logistically by rail, and would also have cost more. For example, we arrived at Harwich International Port late on a weekday evening, from where onward travel was to rural Suffolk. The thought of doing this on multiple local rail (possibly bus) services with a tired two-year-old makes me shudder a bit.

The route

From our home in central Denmark, we set out on a Monday morning and drove south on the E45 motorway, crossing the German border and continuing past Hamburg. We then got on to the A1 Autobahn and made for Bremen, where we stopped overnight.

Travelling non-stop, this journey takes just under four hours. It took us around five and a half. We stopped twice and were caught in traffic at Hamburg, where there is lot of construction going on around the city’s ring road.

Leaving early (just after 6am) the following day, we drove southwest and crossed the border into the Netherlands after a brief stop, but then managed to complete the journey to the port town Hook of Holland without a further break.

Our ferry from Hook of Holland to Harwich was due to leave at 2:15pm and check-in time was an hour before that. This was the only deadline we had on our journey that would have been problematic to miss, so we gave ourselves plenty of time for the drive from Bremen. We arrived in Hook of Holland at around 11:30am.

Next was a six-hour ferry crossing to the East Anglian coast. We booked a cabin – they are inexpensive on daytime crossings – which gave us a chance to relax after the drive and our daughter a comfortable spot for her afternoon nap.

After a queue at customs in Harwich which took around 45 minutes, we were driving through the Essex countryside just before 9pm local time. The final drive to our destination took an hour and a half.

What went right

It’s not the most relevant information for anyone considering a similar trip, but I have to mention our car. A 2003 VW Polo we bought two years ago that has never had any mechanical issues, I was nevertheless braced for possible problems given its age (and ensured I had roadside assistance for outside of Denmark, more detail on this below).

However, there was not so much as a hint of an issue of any kind at any point during the 900 kilometres it covered on the journey, nor on the way home. Respect.

Our plan to split the trip into two days paid off. I think you could do it in one day (there are also overnight ferries) if you shared the driving and needed less flexibility. I should also recognise here that we live relatively close to Germany and our destination was close to the east coast of the UK. If you were travelling, for example, from Copenhagen to Cardiff, you’d have significantly more driving to do.

For us, knowing we could take long breaks if we needed them took a lot of stress out of the journey and allowed us to adapt to our toddler’s needs – changing nappies, finding a service station playground or stopping for an ice cream.

Stopping overnight also gave us the chance to see some new places (we switched things up on the way back and stayed in Groningen in the north of the Netherlands, instead of Bremen) and gave us a feeling of being on our own little bonus holiday.

What went wrong

In all, things went as well as we possibly could have hoped for and our conclusion after we got back home was that we’d like to travel this way again.

We were stopped by traffic police in Groningen city centre because I failed to understand signs showing we were entering a public transport-only zone. The officers who stopped us then offered to escort us to our accommodation a few streets away.

The ferry, operated by Stena Lines, had far less to do on board than we’d imagined there would be on a six-hour voyage. Two tiny off-duty shops, a cinema showing a superhero film and a minuscule play area (which our daughter nevertheless enjoyed) were about the extent of it. We hadn’t downloaded any films ourselves or brought much entertainment with us from the car, so we got a bit bored during the crossing. This is hardly a serious gripe and an easy one to rectify on the return trip.

The practical stuff 

Roadside assistance is obviously crucial for a journey like this, and it’s also important to double check your insurance is valid once you leave the country in which your car is registered and insured – Denmark, in our case.

Foreign authorities can check your insurance is valid. You can document this with the International Motor Insurance or “Green” card, which serves as proof you have motor insurance when you drive outside of the EU (you don’t need it within the EU).

This means that (in theory) you can be asked to present it in the UK. We weren’t asked for it.

The Green Card can be printed via your insurance company’s website. You’ll need your MitID or NemID secure login to access the platform and print off your document. Here is an example of the relevant page on the website of insurance company Tryg. If you can’t find the right section on your insurance company’s website, contact them by phone.

A number of Danish companies specialise in roadside assistance, including Falck and SOS Dansk Autohjælp. You can also include roadside assistance as part of your motor insurance package. We have the latter option, but in either case, I’d recommend calling your provider to make sure you are covered for breakdown in the EU and non-EU countries like the UK (if that’s where you’re going). Obviously, you should add such cover to your existing deal if you don’t have it, or change to a different deal.

The company which operates the ferry from Hook of Holland to Harwich is Stena Line. Both directions have daytime and overnight departures.

There is a range of prices, and I couldn’t cover all the options here if I tried. However, I’d recommend a cabin on the daytime departures, because it’s inexpensive and gives you a bit of personal space and privacy, which is useful with children.

After calculating what our approximate fuel costs would be, the price of the hotel stays and ferry tickets, we found that the trip cost around 1,500 kroner more than we would have paid to fly from Billund Airport to London Stansted with checked-in baggage with Ryanair on the same dates. In return, we could take as much luggage as we want with us (and back), we got to see Bremen and Groningen and had our own car with us in the UK. This was more than worth the additional expense.

I also spent 50 kroner on a “DK” sticker for the tailgate of the car (because the car is so old it predates the EU number plates that include the country code) and 70 kroner for some headlight stickers which prevent full beam headlamps from dazzling oncoming drivers when you are driving on the left in the UK.

As I busily fixed them onto my car as we waited to disembark the ferry, however, a lorry driver parked next to us said these were, in fact, entirely unnecessary.

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