Travel: Why there's so much chaos at airports right now

·Senior Editor
·5-min read

Traveling this summer has become a nightmare experience for millions of travelers in the U.S. and Europe.

Delays and cancellations are rampant, as are long lines and lost luggage. According to David Slotnick, senior aviation reporter at The Points Guy, there are a number of factors at play, but COVID is at the root of it.

“It all stems from the height of the pandemic, when companies — both airlines, airports, and their subcontractors — laid off or furloughed a lot of employees,” Slotnick said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “It’s been very difficult to staff up. We’ve obviously seen that here, too. But it’s been a difficult situation in Europe.”

Travelers push their luggages at the Terminal 2 of El Prat airport in Barcelona on July 12, 2022. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)
Travelers push their luggages at the Terminal 2 of El Prat airport in Barcelona on July 12, 2022. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

Between April and June, European airline carriers had more than double the number of cancellations of U.S.-based ones, according to RadarBox.com. Lines at some airports in Europe have gotten so long that it has taken hours for some travelers to get through security and finally board their flights.

On Tuesday, John Holland-Kaye, CEO of London’s Heathrow Airport, went so far as to ask airlines to stop selling tickets until September.

“We recognize that this will mean some summer journeys will either be moved to another day, another airport, or canceled,” Holland-Kaye wrote in a letter to passengers. “And we apologize to those whose travel plans are affected.”

While no airlines have yet responded to the CEO’s request, many of these companies are aware of the problem at hand. Delta CEO Ed Bastian recently apologized to customers for the number of disruptions, though the airline has improved its reliability so far in July.

Delta Air Lines pilots, represented by the Air Line Pilots Association, protest outside Terminal 4 at JFK International airport in New York City, U.S., June 30, 2022. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Delta Air Lines pilots, represented by the Air Line Pilots Association, protest outside Terminal 4 at JFK International airport in New York City, U.S., June 30, 2022. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

'It's been hard for them to hire'

Staffing shortages have been plaguing airlines as consumer demand has rebounded after a devastating drop early on in the pandemic.

Pilots and air traffic controllers are in short supply, as it can take years to be certified to work with large commercial airliners. In the U.S., many Delta pilots picketed at airports while the company renegotiates contracts with their labor union. They aren’t the only workers experiencing staffing issues, however.

“In terms of Heathrow, they’re saying that it’s specifically their ground handlers, so the people who manage baggage, the people who run things on the ground to help crowds, help move lines, get people checked in,” Slotnick said. “That’s something that they give to subcontractors a lot. And it’s been hard for them to hire. We’ve also seen a lot of strikes among those companies. So it’s definitely been a challenge.”

In the meantime, some airports putting a cap on passengers as Heathrow has done “can’t hurt the other airports at all,” he said. “The only thing it can really do is alleviate the situation.”

This is because dysfunction at airports can create more delays down the line, Slotnick explained. For example, if a France-based airport can’t get its flights out on time, they’ll be late to Heathrow, where things can pile up.

“So in this scenario [of limiting passengers], where presumably we’re going to see some flights canceled, it should actually alleviate pressure really throughout the whole European system, at least to a degree,” Slotnick said.

The ultimate test, he said, will be if the airlines can improve conditions by the holidays, which may include limiting capacity to flights they'll be able to complete.

“That should fix things,” Slotnick said. “Otherwise, I think it’s going to be next summer that we’re going to see, really, just the higher capacity be able to be managed by these airports again.”

Pro tips for travelers

Slotnick shared several tips for travelers trying to navigate long lines and wait times.

“The best thing you can do is just get there early,” he said. “When the airlines give you a certain time that you should get there, say two or three hours before your flight, this is not the summer to test that. Actually get there. Maybe get there even earlier.”

Slotnick offered another tip to avoid delays: “Try and take the first flight when you can. The first flight of the day usually is the best chance of getting out on time because delays tend to pile up throughout the day.”

Suitcases are seen uncollected at Heathrow's Terminal Three bagage reclaim, west of London on July 8, 2022. (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Suitcases are seen uncollected at Heathrow's Terminal Three bagage reclaim, west of London on July 8, 2022. (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Baggage handling is another major issue for airlines and airports. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, there were a total of 219,723 items of luggage lost by U.S.-based carriers in April 2022, a 134.5% increase year-over-year.

“The best thing you can do, really, is just carry on whenever possible,” Slotnick said. “I’m flying in through Heathrow next week to cover an air show that’s happening in the UK. And normally I would check a bag so I could carry all my equipment. Instead, I’m going to carry everything on. It just isn’t worth the risk at this point. And it’s going to make things a lot smoother.”

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at adriana@yahoofinance.com.

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