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Holiday Travel Is Back—with Long Lines And Big Waits

Many travel restrictions imposed over the past two years have now been lifted and people are making up for lost time to visit relatives, travel for work or take a vacation, especially during the Easter holidays. But airlines and airports are struggling to ramp up, as a labor shortage stymies efforts to recruit new workers and Covid infections sideline many existing employees.

The airport in Austin, Texas, has been overrun in recent weeks, with long lines for security, and to return rental cars late last month. In the UK, British Airways has made cuts to its flying schedule until May, while London Heathrow Airport says it is scrambling to hire 12,000 workers. And in Sydney, Australia’s biggest city, the airport is expecting Thursday–the day before a four-day Easter weekend—to be the busiest domestic-travel day since March 2020, a huge challenge with 20% of its staff missing work every day because of Covid-19.

“This is the longest line I think I’ve ever waited in, and we’ve done quite a bit of traveling,” said Mary Beth Wood, 65 years old, as she stood in a security line that occasionally snaked outside the door at Sydney Airport on Wednesday afternoon.

Airlines spent much of the pandemic laying off or furloughing thousands of workers and mothballing plans. Many pilots—once considered a dream job—had to find work elsewhere, from grocery stores to farms where they operated heavy machinery instead of jumbo jets. Now, the aviation sector is competing for workers with other industries, from truck driving to hospitality, that are also experiencing a surge in demand.

“Unfortunately, this is an industry where you can’t ramp down and ramp up overnight,” said Subhas Menon, CEO of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines. “It takes a bit of time to make sure that you have staff who are trained.”

The International Air Transport Association, an airline industry group, warned this month that airports, governments and other infrastructure providers should prepare for the huge increase in passenger numbers as recovery in air travel gathered pace. Although international travel has been slower to rebound, the latest IATA figures show that domestic travel in February rose 61% compared with last year and was only 22% below 2019 levels.

In the US, airlines have had almost a year to adjust to rising passenger volumes, but even so passengers have faced periodic snarls as spring-break travel has overwhelmed them. Fliers at New York’s LaGuardia Airport faced waits of 40 to 50 minutes Tuesday morning amid high volumes of passengers, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said.

Some US airlines have said they don’t have enough staff to recover quickly when bad weather or other disruptions hit. Alaska Air Group Inc. said it will trim 2% of flying through the end of June as it looks to catch up on pilot training. JetBlue Airways Corp. said it will cut its schedule by between 8% and 10% in May and throughout the summer to alleviate staffing strains.

JetBlue told crew members in a memo over the weekend that its efforts to account for staffing, equipment, aircraft availability and airport infrastructure to plan its schedule had been upended.

“Covid has thrown all kinds of twists in this process,” President Joanna Geraghty wrote.

Delta Air Lines Inc. has hired about 15,000 new employees since the start of last year, in part to replace those who left during the pandemic, Chief Executive Ed Bastian said in an interview Tuesday. “I feel good about our staffing position,” he said. “We’ve got out way ahead of this.”

The UK experienced a surge in flying after the country became the first in the world to remove all Covid-related travel restrictions. In the north of England, Manchester Airport recently issued an apology to passengers after travelers faced hours of delays.

Staff shortages there have meant that not all security lanes can be opened, and an executive warned passengers should prepare to wait as long as 90 minutes over the next few months as it recruits new staff and puts each through a government vetting process.

“The simple fact is that we don’t currently have the number of staff we need to provide the level of service that our passengers deserve,” Manchester Airports Group Chief Executive Charlie Cornish said. “We’re doing this in one of the most challenging employment markets we have seen, with competition from many other businesses that find themselves in the same position.”

In Asia, airlines face other challenges—routing some of their flights around Russian airspace in the aftermath of that country’s invasion of Ukraine, adding hours to flight times, increasing fuel costs and making journeys less appealing for travelers.

Japan Airlines Co. flights connecting Haneda with Europe now use a north route—flying over Alaska, Greenland and Iceland—that adds up to six hours to the journey time from Helsinki. A JAL spokesman said that the airline has kept the ticket price unchanged so far and, starting from April 19, there are plans to use a southerly route to take advantage of tailwinds to save energy and time.

In Australia, which reopened its border to tourists in February, the crowds at the country’s airports have dominated local news for the past several days. Qantas Airways Ltd., Australia’s main airline, has diverted some employees who usually don’t work at the airport to help guide passengers and assist with baggage, while Sydney Airport said it is deploying senior executives into terminals to help manage lines.

The airport’s security contractor has been recruiting since December for more than 100 security-screening roles, but has struggled to find enough workers, a problem in Australia following nearly two years of strict border closures that stymied immigration. The airport said 50 new screening staff will gradually become available in the coming weeks, but that the process to train new staff takes two months.

“This industry has been completely smashed and we’ve been building from the ground up,” said Geoff Culbert, the airport’s chief executive, in a television interview. “We just can’t get the people into the roles because we’re all fighting over the same resources.”

Adding to the woes are that passengers are also rusty when it comes to going through security, said Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce. Prior to the pandemic, 10% of passengers needed to be rescreened while going through security, but now that figure is up to 30%, Mr. Joyce said. That adds 45 seconds per person, which piles up if thousands of people are traveling.

As the security line began to move at Sydney’s airport, Ms. Wood, who only had carry-on luggage, said she wasn’t concerned about missing her roughly 90-minute domestic flight to Melbourne, given that she arrived in good time and had about an hour and a half until boarding.

“We’ve learned to go with the flow,” said Ms. Wood, who was visiting Australia from California. “As long as we get through on time, we’ll be all right. If we miss our flight, then we’ I’ll be at a high level of horror.”

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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