Travel: should you expect a chaotic summer in 2023?

While many people are planning their summer vacations, we can expect a rather complicated summer in some airports. And if things improve compared to 2022 the passenger will pay part of the bill.

2022: nightmare in air transport

You may remember the terrifying images of the summer of 2022 in many airports, especially in Europe. Endless queues outside the terminal, mountains of delayed and misplaced luggage, passengers who are advised not to check their luggage in the hold…

How did we get here? The answer lies in one word: COVID. Or rather its end.

Air transport has been caught in a storm mainly caused by two factors.

The first was a much faster and more intense recovery than expected with demand exceeding the most optimistic forecasts. The second was the impact of measures taken by industry professionals to control their costs during the pandemic.

It was even more difficult to keep up with the increase in demand because the staff was simply not there. Indeed, if some airlines and airports have kept their staff during the crisis thanks to government aid, others, sometimes because their government was less generous, sometimes simply because they wanted to cut costs, have massively fired some employees.

And even when they didn’t do it, their contractors did!

Thus, when it was necessary to increase capacity very quickly, it took time.

The airlines, when they had enough staff, had to check their planes, put them back on the air, and sometimes the staff lacked the flying hours to be operational right away.

But this is nothing compared to airports where the use of outsourcing is massive. No more agents for security checks, no more people to handle the luggage.

The result we all saw and experienced last summer with passengers stranded en masse in some airports. And even if in France the situation was less bad than elsewhere, it was still necessary that the airports of transit and destination were in a state of normal operation which was not always the case.

But one year later we should in theory expect an improvement of the situation. In theory only.

Signs of concern for the summer of 2023

The main problem of 2022, the lack of personnel, is being resolved but the situation is still not optimal. Depending on the airport, there is a lack of personnel at the controls, in handling, air traffic controllers, or all three!

And even when recruitments were made, they did not keep pace with the increase in traffic: there will be 15% more flights in Europe in 2023 than in 2022, which means one million more flights ! Some of them will only cross the European sky but they need controllers, the others will also need ground staff because they will leave and/or land in a European airport.

The difference with 2022 is that the situation is, this time, anticipated to avoid another chaotic summer. And how do you do this if demand is increasing but you are understaffed? Well, you reduce the traffic!

At Lufthansa, there is talk of 34,000 cancelled flights this summer, not because of the airline but because of staffing problems at German airports.

The same is true in New York where the lack of air traffic controllers will lead to a limitation of the number of flights this summer. It is expected that airlines will have to cut 10% of their flights. If limitations are not put in place, cancellations and delays will increase by 45% compared to last year.

Not better in Amsterdam where the traffic was reduced first for staffing problems and then for environmental reasons which seem to be a pretext to avoid saying that the airport operator is unable to operate at full capacity today, due to lack of staff.

Toronto, London… the list of airports announcing traffic restrictions is growing.

Strikes ahead?

As if that wasn’t enough, there are still unpredictable phenomena: strikes! This is a European specialty, but in a socially and economically tense context, we can’t exclude that this fashion spreads abroad.

In France, air traffic controllers are regularly on strike since the beginning of the year and nothing says that the movement will stop soon. Worse: given the central position of France in the European sky, it is all the airlines that cross it that suffer from it and complain about it.

The situation is no better in Germany, where a massive strike by airport staff took place in March over wage demands. And there again nothing says that a time bomb will not explode this summer!

TAP Air Portugal came close to a strike at Easter due to the non-ratification of social agreements. Here again, the fire is smoldering.

The improvement of the situation has a cost and the passenger will pay it

So we have two phenomena, the lack of personnel and the demands of current employees, mainly in airports and air traffic control, which suggest that the summer will not be particularly peaceful for passengers. But in addition to complicating their vacations it will make them more expensive.

Indeed, the purpose of flight limitation, when implemented, is not to make travel smooth, just to keep delays and cancellations at an acceptable level (the threshold of acceptability not necessarily being shared by the traveler).

But when demand increases while supply decreases, what happens? Prices go up. The only solution for the airlines would be to use bigger planes but they reserve them for long distance flights and their fleet is not infinite (which is another explanation of the high prices).

Difficulties in recruiting ground staff? They want better wages.

Strikes ? They want better wages.

If these demands are met, they will be absorbed by the airports, which will pass them on to the airlines in the form of taxes, which will eventually be passed on to the ticket price.

Bottom line

Lack of staff, limited capacity, the summer of 2023 may be complicated in some airports. While we see the post-covid tariff bubble slowly deflating, there is a risk of another one developing against the backdrop of limited operational capacity on the ground.

In any case, we will remain vigilant on the subject of flight cancellations.

Image : queue at amsterdam airport may 2020 by Fery Iswandy via Shutterstock

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrin
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.

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