With most countries dropping Covid-19 travel restrictions last year, demand for international travel started to pick up again. The sudden surge left most airlines and airports, that had scaled operations down during the pandemic, unprepared, leading to a general travel chaos. Towards the end of the year, things seemed to return to normal, but with strikes and cancellations already announced for the upcoming holiday season, chaos seems to be looming over this year’s summer travel.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has forecast that air passenger demand will rapidly recover to pre-pandemic levels on most routes by the first quarter of 2023, with a growth of around 3% on 2019 figures by the end of the year. But “getting closer to pre-pandemic traffic levels will not be easy against a backdrop of supply chain issues, possible industrial action, airspace unavailability, sector bottlenecks, rising demand and system changes”, according to Eurocontrol.
Airlines and airports are still struggling to re-hire enough staff to manage the influx of passengers. The labour shortage, combined with frequent strikes from existing employees seriously threaten the travel sector this year. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary has already warned that the summer of 2023 will not be much different than last year, with major delays and cancellations looming on the horizon.
The warning signs are already there. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, one of the most affected last year, has yet again extended its daily passenger travel cap. Initially supposed to last until the end of 2022, then extended to March this year, the cap is now in place until the end of May, clearly showing that one of Europe’s air connectivity hubs is not prepared for the summer ahead.
At Heathrow, which, along with Schiphol, also suffered a lot last year, needing to introduce a passenger cap, the chaos is bound to start sooner than summer. More than 3,000 airport workers are threatening to strike over pay during the Easter holiday period causing great disruption at the London hub.
Heathrow is not the only one, with airport and transport strikes announced all over Europe. In France, unions are planning the biggest day of action yet and are promising to bring the country to a complete standstill on 7 March. In Spain, the unions have called for a series of 24-hour walkouts every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, affecting 17 airports from 27 February to 13 April.
Foreseeing the inability of coping with a busy summer, Lufthansa has already cancelled 34,000 flights from its summer schedule. The latest reduction in schedules is designed to pre-empt and avoid the last-minute cancellations that created havoc for passengers in summer 2022.
Whether or not these precautions will be enough to ensure a smooth holiday season this year remains to be seen, but, thus far, the outlook doesn’t seem very promising.