askST: Flight disruptions and baggage delays at airports are surging. What is happening?

Passengers waiting in line at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport on June 16, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS
Lines of passenger luggage outside Terminal 2 at London's Heathrow Airport on June 19, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - Flight disruptions and baggage issues caused by a manpower shortage worldwide have plagued airports in the last few months.

The Straits Times takes a look at why these problems are occurring and what travellers can do to reduce the risk of being affected.

Q: What is causing the disruptions?

A: The primary reason for the surge in flight cancellations and baggage issues is the manpower crunch faced by several airports worldwide.

The International Air Transport Association said on Monday (June 20) that the global aviation sector is now employing about 44 million people. This is slightly less than half of the 90 million people employed by the sector in 2019.

Q: Why is there a manpower shortage?

A: Airports, airlines and ground handlers worldwide have laid off tens of thousands of workers since the Covid-19 pandemic started in early 2020. Many other remaining workers have also left the sector in search of better job security, amid the uncertainty about the prospects for air travel.

As governments worldwide eased border restrictions in response to reduced public health concerns, air travel has recovered at a faster rate than expected.

With travellers returning to airports more quickly than workers, some airports have been overwhelmed.

Covid-19 outbreaks among airport staff are an additional drag on manpower. The situation in Europe has also been exacerbated by strikes in recent weeks.

Q: What is happening at airports in Europe?

A: The problems caused by the manpower crunch have been most apparent in London, Amsterdam and Dublin.

At the Heathrow Airport in London, airlines were asked to cancel 10 per cent of their schedules on Monday, affecting an estimated 15,000 passengers on 90 flights. A shortage of workers in baggage handling had led to long delays, leaving thousands of unclaimed bags piling up over the weekend after passengers waiting for hours had left in frustration.

Gatwick, Britain's second-busiest airport, said it would limit flights to 825 a day in July and 850 a day in August, from a pre-pandemic peak of around 950 services.

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol said that passenger numbers would be capped at about 20 per cent below usual levels at the busiest times in July.

At the Dublin Airport in Ireland, a check-in queue was seen stretching way beyond the airport even before daybreak in late May. On May 29, more than 1,000 passengers missed flights due to queues and a lack of airport staff.

Disputes over pay have also led to strikes by some workers, thus further disrupting flights. For example, airport workers in Paris and air traffic controllers in Italy have gone on strike in recent weeks.

Travellers queueing at Geneva Airport on June 15 after Swiss airspace was closed following a computer glitch with the air traffic control system. PHOTO: AFP

Q: What is happening at airports elsewhere?

A: In the United States, about 15,000 flights were cancelled between last Friday and Sunday. The flight cancellations were attributed to Covid-19 cases among aviation staff, poor weather and shortage in manpower, including among pilots.

Long check-in queues and wait time for luggage or check-ins have also been reported in Australia and India.

For now, Europe and the United States are the primary regions afflicted by airport congestion. But industry observers have warned that Asian airports, if not managed properly, could very well be next to face such issues.

People waiting for a flight at Ostend Airport in Belgium on June 20, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Q: How can travellers get compensation for delays?

A: Travellers should consider buying travel insurance.

Mr Aaron Wong, founder of travel hacks site The MileLion, said: "No one should be heading overseas without travel insurance, in particular a policy with solid coverage for travel inconveniences like delayed or lost luggage and missed connections."

Travellers flying from Switzerland, Iceland, Norway or an European Union airport can tap the EC261 flight disruption compensation when their flights are delayed or cancelled. The EC261 is an EU law which protects the rights of air passengers. But travellers will not be entitled to compensation if flights are disrupted owing to "extraordinary circumstances," such as strikes or bad weather.

In buying insurance, travellers should try to get coverage for costs related to flight disruptions such as pre-paid fees for hotels, car rentals and tours.

Q: What other precautions can travellers take?

A: Travellers can temporarily avoid travelling for leisure to places where the manpower crunch at airports has been well documented.

When booking hotels, choose the most flexible cancellation policies.

To minimise inconvenience arising from delayed baggage, travellers should pack all essentials in carry-on bags, said Mr Wong. Essential items include chargers, medication and important documents.

Mr Wong added: "While departures from Changi Airport are still manageable, you should budget one to two extra hours on top of your regular buffer time for check-ins when flying back to Singapore.

"With loads so high now, missing your flight may mean not being able to get a seat home for a few days."

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