The “great return” of travel has a price: chaos

Arriving at London Gatwick Airport for his EasyJet flight to Malaga, Spain, with his wife and 12-year-old daughter on April 4, Alasdair Crawley said it was like walking into the chaos of the aftermath of a match of football. The 49-year-old plumber from east London described long unruly lines of angry passengers trying to work out the status of their flights and extended families on the floor eating, drinking and sleeping to get through long delays.

“First our flight was canceled and rebooked a day later so we lost the first night of our hotel, then when we arrived for our new flight it was delayed for three hours,” recalls Crawley this week from his hotel balcony. in Spain. “It’s a bliss to be here, but honestly, if I had known I still had to go through the mess at the airport, I probably would have chosen to stay home in my backyard.”

Crawley wasn’t the only one eager to seize the moment – or encounter chaos when he did. Over the past two weeks, travelers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean have endured long queues at airports, flight delays or cancellations, and a lot of frustration.

Thousands of Britons flocked to airports for the start of the Easter holiday season, which coincided with governments across Europe dropping coronavirus restrictions. But in the past two weeks, more than 1,000 flights have been canceled across Britain, upsetting the holiday plans of tens of thousands of passengers. On April 9 alone, British Airways and EasyJet canceled more than 100 flights.

In the United States, low-cost carriers such as Southwest and Spirit were also forced to cancel flights earlier this month after technical problems and bad weather. Additionally, JetBlue and Alaska Airlines announced cuts to spring and summer flight schedules, with JetBlue cutting flight capacity in May between 8% and 10% and saying it plans to make similar cuts to its schedule. summer, while Alaska cut its flight schedule by 2%. until June.

The cuts came at a time when travel demand has returned strongly, with some airlines and airports reporting the highest passenger numbers since the start of the pandemic. London’s Heathrow Airport handled 4.2 million passengers in March, a more than sevenfold jump from a year ago. In the United States, passenger traffic in recent months has reached nearly 90% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

“When Europe lifted its restrictions, it was an invitation to come back,” said Janice Riley, 54, an American basking in the sun in Geneva’s Old Town early last week. Riley’s trip to France and Switzerland had gone smoothly so far, but she said she was prepared to get stuck or face disruption to get somewhere. “I just wanted to travel and see friends and family, and taking that risk was worth it,” she said.

This is the moment the travel industry has been waiting for – “the big comeback”, despite rising prices and uncertainty surrounding the war in Ukraine. But it looks like the new normal for travelers may be the chaos brought on by the continued spread of coronavirus variants and sub-variants and tour operators still unable to keep up with the volume of demand.

“We’re going to have a very bumpy and turbulent two months ahead,” said Paul Charles, CEO of The PC Agency, a London-based travel consultancy.

Easing of restrictions and booming demand

The freedom to travel after two years of strict rules has caused a sudden surge in demand for European travel. The International Air Transport Association, which represents nearly 300 airlines, expects total passenger numbers in Europe to reach 86% of 2019 figures in 2022 and fully recover in 2024.

The biggest problem, said Charles, the travel consultant, is that many travel agencies were unprepared for demand to return so quickly and are now scrambling to recruit staff.

“The shortage of labor now translates into businesses not being able to operate normally,” he said.

At the height of the pandemic, tens of thousands of jobs were cut in the aviation industry, and now many airline and airport workers are reluctant to return to jobs that can offer long hours and low pay . Uncertainty about the future of the pandemic has also caused people in the industry to seek more secure career opportunities.

“Stories of unruly passengers, often long commute times and job uncertainty, as seen with COVID-19, could be off-putting to many people currently looking for work,” said Ralph Hollister, travel and tourism analyst at data analytics firm GlobalData.

Hollister said understaffing in security roles had contributed to the disruption experienced at UK airports, adding that the time needed to screen and train people means the issues will not be resolved any time soon.

The problems have been compounded by a record rise in coronavirus cases across Europe, particularly in Britain, which has dropped all of its coronavirus requirements for masking, testing and vaccination. Earlier this month, the government reported that one in 13 people were infected with the virus, and the World Health Organization said virus restrictions in several countries, including France, Italy, Germany and Britain, had been eased too quickly, leading to an increase in cases. Coronavirus infections have also increased in parts of the United States as highly contagious omicron subvariants spread.

Echoing what U.S. carriers have faced during the spread of omicron, EasyJet said hundreds of its cancellations have occurred due to coronavirus-related crew absences. British Airways has also been struggling with staff illness, but said the majority of its flights continued to operate as scheduled.

On Tuesday, EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren said he would have expected the peak of COVID-19 infections in the UK and other parts of Europe to have subsided by now, but that has not happened yet. “Until then, we will continue to monitor the situation,” he said.

Still, the airline flew 94% of its scheduled schedule last week, the most flights operated since 2019, and is confident it will be able to return to a near pre-pandemic schedule by summer, Lundgren said.

“Hurry up”

For American travelers, one of the biggest concerns is the pre-departure coronavirus test required to return home, which they say could mean they’ll be stuck abroad if they test positive. Among major Western tourist destinations, the United States is resisting by continuing to require a negative test to enter; the Netherlands, Ireland and Jamaica have all recently dropped this requirement.

The US travel industry pushed the Biden administration to drop both the testing requirement and its mask mandate for airplanes and other public transportation. The American Society of Travel Advisors, or ASTA, said the inbound testing requirement is the biggest hurdle to fully resuming the international travel system.

On Wednesday, the US government announced it would extend for two weeks a mandate requiring travelers to wear masks on public transport, including on planes and at airports. He did not address the future of the pre-arrival testing requirement.

Travel demand among American travelers to European destinations is recovering, but was dampened by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February. In a recent survey of 1,300 Americans by travel app TripIt, 33% of respondents said they would take a trip abroad by June. Travel booking site Hopper said that in March 15% of international bookings on its site were for US trips to Europe, down from 6% since the invasion. In 2019, travel from the United States to Europe accounted for 30% of international bookings on the site.

“I postponed this trip to 2020 and then again to 2021, but I’m 70 and time is running out,” said Richard Zelinka, a lawyer from Naples, Florida, of a visit to France that he has scheduled for June. “At some point, health issues will prevent me from traveling, and you just don’t know what will happen in the world next year.”

When Crawley, the east London plumber, emptied most of his savings account to book the trip to Spain, he told his wife it was time to ‘let go and live again’, said he declared. “I didn’t want to wait for the next bad news or a new COVID variant or WWIII to start. It felt like now or maybe never.

© 2022 The New York Times Company


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