Why one of Europe’s main airports has become a “crazy disaster”

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Amsterdam (CNN) — Hour-long security lines that often snake outside under tents. Untold numbers of angry passengers have queued in those lines, and still missed their flights. Worker strikes and delayed or lost luggage. Condemnation by major airlines, especially KLM.

At Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, labor shortages continue to fuel unprecedented chaos that began in the spring, leading many travelers and aviation experts to wonder what happened to an airport long considered one of the most efficient and respected in Europe, if not in the world. .

KLM added that the situation is “damaging our reputation among passengers who are interested and willing to travel after the protracted Covid crisis.” The airline estimates that it has incurred more than 100 million euros ($96 million) in damage as a result.

During the summer, several airlines, including Air Malta, TUI and Transavia, chose to switch flights from Schiphol to other airports, according to Simple Flying.
Many have blamed mismanagement, and on September 15, Dick Benschop, chairman and CEO of the Royal Schiphol Group, announced his resignation. Benschop will remain in his place until a successor is found.

Benschop was a keynote speaker at the World Aviation Festival in Amsterdam, a conference attended by some 5,000 aviation industry professionals, where the struggles of Schiphol were a common topic of conversation.

Dutch flag carrier KLM said the problems at Schiphol were damaging its reputation.

Dutch flag carrier KLM said the problems at Schiphol were damaging its reputation.

Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images

In different presentations over two days, Benchop openly acknowledged Schiphol’s “serious operational problems caused by staff shortages.” He said management is committed to fixing the problems by providing a “reliable and predictable” passenger experience, improving working conditions and pay for workers, and working with airlines to rebuild capacity.

But he also hinted that the challenges are not over: a grim prospect for passengers with upcoming flights during the autumn school holidays in the Netherlands.

“Those conditions, those labor market constraints, are not going to go away overnight,” he said. “That’s what we’re dealing with and how we’re dealing with it. And of course, for everyone involved, it’s extremely hard work. If you disappoint customers, and there are times when that actually happened, it’s extremely frustrating. It’s painful. But we’ll get through it.”

During the course of the conference, Schiphol faced another hurdle when the Dutch parliament announced that it is seeking to further limit the airport’s maximum annual number of flying moments from 500,000 to 440,000 to reduce emissions and noise pollution.

Benschop called the potential reduction a “very risky approach.” He would especially hit KLM, Schiphol’s biggest user, as the airline would have to drop some 30 routes to comply with the new limits, according to Dutch media including Financieele Dagblad and NL Times. In a statement, KLM said it wants to discuss alternative solutions, such as fleet renewal, with the government.

‘Race to the bottom’ strategy

Schiphol CEO Dick Benschop has announced his resignation amid the trouble.

Schiphol CEO Dick Benschop has announced his resignation amid the trouble.

Evert Elzinga/ANP/AFP/Getty Images

Staff shortages, which have affected the entire aviation sector in the wake of the pandemic, have been particularly problematic at Schiphol. The challenge became painfully obvious from April 23, the first day of spring break in the Netherlands, when KLM ground staff went on strike, causing huge disruption.

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The chaos continued throughout the summer, as a shortage of security workers led to massive security lines. The problem was eased in part thanks to a €5.25-per-hour bonus the airport put in place for security workers during peak travel season, according to Joost van Doesburg, Schiphol’s campaign leader for FNV, the union that it represents about 40% of Schiphol’s employees.

After the bonus was removed after the summer season, a decision disputed by many aviation and labor experts, many workers, unsurprisingly, left in search of higher-paying jobs. As a result, queues have increased again at Schiphol, especially on weekends.

Joost, who described current conditions at Schiphol as “an insane mess,” condemned such cost-cutting measures as part of a “race to the bottom” management mentality that has underpinned many of Schiphol’s problems. What is needed, he said, are more established work hours, less outsourcing of airport operations and, of course, better wages for workers.

“If you work in a supermarket now, you can earn a lot more money than being a security employee at Schiphol airport,” Joost said. “Now they probably need to go back to what we saw about the emergency measures, but also make sure that they do everything possible to implement sustainable structural changes to improve jobs at Schiphol airport.”

Meanwhile, passengers continue to be puzzled and frustrated by the current problems.

Schiphol Airport is one of the busiest airports in the world for international passenger traffic.

Schiphol Airport is one of the busiest airports in the world for international passenger traffic.

Arthur Van Der Kooij/ANP/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s crazy [that] this has not been resolved,” said Fadi Bizri, a venture capital and technology consultant who spent hours in check-in, security and passport verification lines at Schiphol at both ends of a recent business trip from his home in Beirut. .

Bizri, who had to rush to his gate to arrive 10 minutes before departure (the flight was eventually delayed), counts himself one of the “lucky ones” who didn’t miss his flight. “I checked my luggage, so I only had a backpack so I could run around like crazy,” he said. “I don’t know how you do it with children or older people who have physical limitations.”

Bizri and many other passengers have taken to social networks to vent their frustrations, documenting the turbulent situation along with hashtags like #SchipholChaos and other more vitriolic nicknames. Writer Heleen van Royen struck a creative note with a recent Tweet titled “Schiphol: The Movie,showing photos of long lines in and out of the airport that he took on the way to a vacation.

Even Schiphol’s own employees have gotten into the mess as commuters. In a presentation on Schiphol’s data optimization strategy at the World Aviation Festival, Tor Bøe-Lillegraven, chief data officer for Royal Schiphol Group, showed a photo of the zigzag lines outside the airport and said he too endured a four hour wait. with his family on their way to vacation.

But the problems go beyond the long security lines. The staffing shortage has affected other airport operations, including baggage handling and passenger disembarkation. It all creates a ripple effect that can mean additional flight delays and a negative experience for passengers, further eroding the airport’s traditionally strong reputation.

In a Sept. 30 statement, the airport said it is actively working to improve its employment conditions, including better pay, more consistent work schedules and hiring more staff. A Schiphol media spokesman denied CNN Travel’s requests for an interview, citing “other priorities this week” in an email.

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What can passengers do?

Many passengers have had to queue for hours to catch their flight from Schiphol.

Many passengers have had to queue for hours to catch their flight from Schiphol.

Ramon van Flymen/ANP/AFP/Getty Images

Some travelers like Bizri, who have recently experienced the chaos at Schiphol, advise prospective passengers to avoid it altogether. Instead, they recommend flying from alternative airports, such as Rotterdam, The Hague or Brussels in neighboring Belgium, or traveling by train.

But those who can’t avoid Schiphol can try a few strategies that might minimize their hassles. The airport home page is a good start: it indicates whether a normal or busy travel day is expected and provides estimated wait times based on specific flight information, noting that passengers are “welcome at the airport” four hours before departure.

For on-the-ground updates and passenger feedback, the Schiphol Live Facebook group in English provides up-to-date information on wait times, delays and other issues among more than 8,300 members.

Some general trends that have emerged in the group: Fridays and Mondays are generally the busiest days at the airport, with queues continuing to increase later in the day. Many group members also suggest bringing snacks and drinks in case of a long wait (airport staff sometimes provide stroopwafels to passengers queuing, but not always). It is also recommended not to check bags.

Schiphol has also implemented a plan to compensate passengers for missed flights and other expenses caused by long queues. Some travelers recommend that once they arrive at the airport, passengers take a selfie documenting the time in case such proof is needed for a compensation claim.

Finally, priority status does not always guarantee smooth sailing at Schiphol. Some travelers have reported that the priority line isn’t always open, and many airline lounges have filled up lately, limiting the purchase of day passes.

‘Just let yourself go’

That was the case for Ugne Lipeikaite, who frequently travels to Africa for her work, during her most recent experience at Schiphol. Lipeikaite had a 14-hour layover in Amsterdam on his way back to Santiago de Chile, where he lives, and originally planned to leave the airport to meet a friend. But, following the advice of the airport staff due to the long lines, she decided to stay.

When Lipeikaite finally got through the “rather chaotic” four-hour security line for connecting flights, he went to a KLM lounge and found that it was not selling day passes. But still he managed to find a small corner of tranquility: at Schiphol airport. library.

“I work with libraries, and it was great that they had a library, so I stayed [there] most of the time,” Lipeikaite said. “On a really long trip with a lot of connections, you just learn to be calm and go with the flow. You also start to appreciate the little things. You know, we also have an Ebola outbreak in Uganda right now, and people are really scared for their lives. … Life doesn’t end with you feeling awkward for a couple of hours. There are much bigger things.”

Top Image Credit: RAMON VAN FLYMEN/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

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