November 30, 2022

Overcrowded terminals. Delayed and canceled flights. Thousands of bags piled in airports. Travelers might be surprised to hear that air travel in Europe is a bigger mess than in the States. 

The operational reliability of European airlines has dropped significantly since 2021. And the flights that are operating face continued delays and cancellations — especially for short-haul intra-European flights. The airlines are focusing their operations on long-haul intercontinental flights, which means travelers in New York flying nonstop to Paris have a halfway decent shot of completing the flight somewhat near to its published schedule. But those connecting in Paris to another European destination could have problems.

Passengers at Frankfurt Airport
Passengers wait for their check-in at the airport in Frankfurt am Main on July 7, 2022. For weeks, staff shortages at all German airports have led to sometimes chaotic scenes.

Boris Roessler/picture alliance via Getty Images


And those delayed and canceled flights have stranded thousands of passengers, who have filled up terminals as they wait for a way to get where they’re going. Plus, there are more than a million fewer ground handlers, customer service agents, gate agents and baggage loaders in Europe than before the pandemic, meaning long wait times for passengers at either end of their journey.

To cope with airport overcrowding, some countries have put limits on the number of people allowed in a terminal at any one time — leading to lines that stretch to the streets leading to the airports. At Dublin Airport in Ireland, the line starts forming at 2 a.m. and by 3 a.m., travelers are in the streets outside the terminal, in some cases waiting three hours just to get to an airline counter or go through security. 

Then, flights are further delayed because of a shortage of workers “under the wings”– ground handlers and baggage loaders. At London’s Gatwick Airport, 1,000 flights have been taken off the schedule starting last week. And just this week, British Airways canceled 10,000 flights that were set for the summer. That brings the total flights the airline has taken off the schedule in the last few weeks to 30,000.

Travelers are experiencing similar problems at Frankfurt Airport, and not just with flight delays Thousands of passenger bags are piled up in claim areas — and going nowhere, a combination of missed connections and not enough baggage handlers or airline employees to identify the bags and start the process of reuniting them with their owners.

The worst example: Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. About 10 days ago, the government tried to limit the number of people who could be inside the terminal at any one time. Then, the government asked airlines to cut their flight schedules. Neither solved the problem. 

Now, the government of the Netherlands has taken the extraordinary — and unprecedented — step of ordering all airlines not to sell any more tickets between now and July 31. Translation: Airlines can only fly the passengers who bought tickets prior to today. And the cap doesn’t lift until Aug. 1.

This delay and cancellation mess will most likely continue through October, since airline schedules won’t stabilize until demand eases in the fourth quarter, and the hiring pipeline starts to flow again. Until then, try picking a U.S. airline for outbound trips to Europe, and a foreign carrier based in that country for a return trip. That way, you’re not waiting for an arriving aircraft so you can depart.  And make sure any connection time is at least four hours — not just to protect you, but to make sure your bags connect. 

Or, better still, don’t fly at all between European cities. Take the train. European trains are much more efficient and have a great on-time performance record. 

If you do end up caught in a cancellation or delay, there’s one aspect of the European flight experience that remains mostly unknown to American travelers that might make things a bit easier. The EU has a relatively robust compensation system for passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled, called EC Rule 261. 

Under the rule, a traveler whose flight is delayed or canceled is entitled to receive up to 600 Euros, and in more extended delays or cancellation situations, a hotel room and other expenses as well. Most airlines don’t volunteer this rule, and passengers need to know it exists — and it works.

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