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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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TRAIN TRAVEL

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

Hoping to do his bit for the planet, perhaps save some money and avoid spending any time in airports, The Local's Ben McPartland decided to travel 2,000km with his family across Europe by train - not plane. Here's how he got on on and would he recommend it?

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying - even with kids

Summer 2022 has seen the return of people travelling across Europe en masse whether for holidays or to see family, or both.

But it’s also seen chaos in airports, airline strikes and more questions than ever about whether we should be flying at all as Europe bakes under consecutive heatwaves caused by the climate crisis.

But are there really viable alternatives to travelling 2,000 km across Europe in a short space of time – with young kids?

The predicament

We needed to get from Paris to Portugal, or to be more precise the western edge of the Algarve in southern Portugal, for a week-long family holiday.

We didn’t have that much time to spend travelling there and back so the dilemma was how could we get there, fairly quickly?

“We” in this case being a family of four including two children aged 5 and 7, one fairly easygoing mum and a dad (me) who increasingly comes out in a rash when he goes near an airport.

Normally we’d have flown – as we did when we went to the same region of Portugal in October – but the stories of airport chaos, delays, cancellations, strikes and never-ending queues around Europe at the start of the summer made the prospect of taking the plane far less appealing.

Then throw in the climate crisis and the growing feeling that we, as a family, need to make an effort for the cause.

So the thought of flying, during what forecasters say was one of the hottest Julys on record in Europe and as rivers dried up and wildfires burn, just didn’t feel like an acceptable option – to me anyway – when there are alternatives.

There was the option of driving from France to Portugal, as many French and Portuguese nationals living in France do every summer. But driving nearly 2,000 km there and back for just a week’s holiday with two kids strapped in the back for hours on end would have been asking for trouble – either a breakdown or lots of meltdowns.

So that left taking the train. But would it be viable?  Would something go wrong as my colleague Richard Orange had warned on his own rail trip across Europe with kids this summer?

READ ALSO: What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids

Planning the route

With the help of some really knowledgeable European rail experts like Jon Worth and information from the excellent The Man in Seat Sixty-One website we looked at the various rail routes through France and Spain to southern Portugal.

One problem was the line from southern Spain to the Algarve no longer runs which meant the best we could do was get to Seville and then hire a car.

At one point the best option looked like a night train (fairly cheap with a whole cabin reserved for the family) down to the Pyrenees (Latour-de-Carol) and then a local train to Barcelona before onwards travel to Portugal.

But in the end we settled on the direct train from Paris to Barcelona, spend the night in the Catalan city before taking the train the next day to Seville and picking up the car.

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

It would be mean Paris to Portugal in two days – or to be precise 7 hours to Barcelona, one night in a hotel, before a five-and-half-hour train journey to Seville and a three-hour car journey. It was the quickest way without flying, as far as we could see.

We were about to book the tickets when friend who was travelling by rail through Europe mentioned the Interrail option.

I did Interrailing as an 18-year- old and it was a great way to spend a month travelling around Europe (and Morocco) but had never thought it could be an option for a quickish trip to Portugal and back.

But Interrail has changed a bit since 1996 and indeed since 1972 when it was first launched for under 21s.

Now it offers passes that can be used for 4, 5 or 7 days a month – perfect for travel to a few destinations in a short space of time.

And, this was the clincher – Interrail passes for under 11s are free if they are with an adult.

Well almost free, because in certain countries like France and Spain you still need to pay for seat reservations for anyone travelling.

But the cost of the passes for two adults, plus seat reservations were cheaper than just booking direct trains and much cheaper than flying (more on costs below).

The high-speed train from Barcelona to Seville. Photo: The Local

The Upsides

Let’s start with not having to wake up at 4am and arrive at the train station three hours before the train leaves just to check in a bag and then spend the next three hours queuing in various lines – bags, passport, security, boarding etc..

We arrived at Gare de Lyon around 30 minutes before the train left and boarded without queuing and the train departed on time.

Compare this with having to get a taxi or the RER train to Charles de Gaulle airport and then still find yourself in Paris three hours later as you queue to board. (I know this is not always the case but this summer the advice was to arrive three hours before your flight to check in bags.)

Plus there was no luggage limits on the train and no having to empty your bags at security because you left an old roll-on deodorant at the bottom of your bag.

Although rail stations in Spain do have airport style x-ray machines to check all luggage, they were very rapid and didn’t result in any long queues.

Add to this comfortable seats with leg room, a bar you can walk to and spend hours watching the beautiful French and Spanish landscape whizz by.

You arrive in the centre of town – in our case Barcelona – so there’s no need to get public transport or taxis to and from out of town airports. 

Spending a night in Barcelona was a great way to break the journey – albeit a bit expensive (see below).

And it all ran pretty much on time. Over five train journeys in four days we had 15 minutes of delay. Spain’s high-speed trains were fantastic.

To sum it up: when flying your holiday only really begins when you arrive at your final destination because these days the day spent travelling is one big headache, but with the train the holiday begins as soon as you leave the station.

It’s just far, far more relaxing.

heading back to Barcelona Sants station after a night in the Catalan capital. Photo: The Local.

The Downsides

But what about the kids, you say?

Yep this can be an issue. Travelling for 7 hours on a train is not easy with two young kids but if you come prepared and can think of 75 different ways to occupy them from drawing and playing cards to I-spy and “count my freckles slowly” then it’s possible the journey will be tantrum free. (Playing hide and seek on a train with 12 carriages isn’t advisable.)

And kids adapt, so the following day’s five and half hour journey from Barcelona to Seville was a breeze because they settled into the pace of life and by that point had worked out the code to get into my mobile phone.

One complaint was how long the TGV train took to get along the southern French coast. Does it really need to stop at Nimes, Montpellier, Beziers, Agde, Sete and Perpignan? Can’t local trains serve these stations and the TGV just head straight to Spain?

Another little gripe was the train food. Whilst buffet cars on SNCF and Renfe trains are great for a coffee or a beer they don’t really offer a selection of healthy meals, so you need to come prepared. We weren’t and spent a lot of money on crap food and drink during the trips.

But if you know this in advance you can bring whatever you like onto the train, with no nonsense about 100ml limits on liquid.

Cost comparison

Working out cost comparisons are hard and anyone looking to do a similar trip will need a calculator at hand. 

It’s hard to do a direct comparison between flying and taking the train because so much depends on what the prices are when you book, the route you want to take and how quickly you want to travel and whether to go first class or standard.

But for us at the time of booking (roughly two months in advance) flights from Paris to Faro were about €1,500 for four people, train tickets booked directly with SNCF and Renfe (not interrail) for four people were around €1,200 (this probably could have been much cheaper further in advance), whilst the Interrail option – 4 day passes plus seat reservations was around €810.

So on the face of it travelling by train, especially using Interrail passes, was cheaper – but then add on the cost of two nights in hotels in central Barcelona and there was no real financial benefit of going by train.

But then it was never all about money – what price on not having to spend three hours at Charles de Gaulle airport?

How easy is it to Interrail?

Interrail proved a great option for us, even though it was only a relatively short trip. It’s more suited to those looking to do multiple journeys through various countries, perhaps at a slower pace. But the kids being free was crucial for us, so other families should definitely explore the option.

The one downside to Interrailing through France and Spain is the requirement to book seat reservations for the high-speed trains.

Whilst this sounds fairly straightforward we couldn’t do it through the Interrail app or website so had to be done with Renfe directly. For most countries you can reserve seats through the Interrail app (more on this below).

With SNCF it required a lengthy phone call because we reserved the seats to make sure there were some available before getting the Interrail passes.

For Paris to Barcelona the reservations cost €34 for standard class seats or €48 for first class.

With Renfe it was more complicated although much cheaper (Around €10 to €12 a seat). We were told on the phone that to reserve seats with Interrail you have to do it either at a Spanish train station or by phone but only if you can pick up and pay for the reservations at a Spanish train station within a certain amount of time.

Neither of these were possible when booking from Paris back in May/June. But the helpful website Man at Seat 61 recommended going via the man behind the AndyBTravels website, who charges a small fee. A few emails were exchanged and our reservations for Barcelona to Seville arrived in the post a few days later. 

Renfe and SNCF could make it easier for Interrail passengers.

The Interrail mobile pass on the the Rail Planner app was very easy to use. It was just a case of adding the days when we were travelling and then adding the specific journeys.

This brought up a QR code for each trip but the ticket controllers were always more concerned about the seat reservations we had on paper.

But all went to plan.

 

Conclusion

Those days spent sitting drinking coffee, orange and beer (in separate cups) starring out of train windows at fields, hills, mountains, villages, beach and train platforms were part of the holiday.

I’d say that if you have a day or two to spare then travelling across Europe by train instead of plane is well worth it – yes, even with two young kids.

They might even thank you for it one day if we all help avert a climate disaster. 

Advice

It’s hard to give advice because each person has different requirements that need to be taken into account – whether number of passengers, time needed for travelling, destinations, cost etc.

But plan ahead and do the research to see what’s possible.

One bit of advice if you need to travel quickly is try keep connections to a minimum or give yourself plenty of time to make them.

My colleague Richard Orange had problems on his trip from Sweden to the UK via Denmark, Germany and Belgium because of delays and missed connections.

Useful links and extra info

You can explore Interrail pass options and prices by visiting the Interrail site here. The site offers plenty of info to help you plan your trip and reserve seats on trains if necessary.

The fantastic Man in Seat 61 guide to train travel across Europe is a must-read for anyone planning a trip. It has pages and pages of useful up to date info and can be viewed here.

It also has loads of information on how to use an Interrail pass and calculations to see whether it’s the best option – if you need help with the maths. The page can be viewed here.

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