Passengers Sigh as Heathrow Caps Numbers to Head Off ‘Airmageddon’

HEATHROW — The travelers’ destinations were varied: a hotly anticipated vacation in Amsterdam, a conference in Ohio, a family reunion in Austria.

But to get there, travelers at Heathrow Airport, one of Europe’s busiest, had to navigate long lines, canceled or delayed flights, and crowds.

“I’ve never been through this situation,” said Fatima Bergamaschi, who slept in a terminal at the airport on Wednesday after a canceled flight to Brazil from London left her family too tired to book a hotel room. “I love travel, but, nowadays, not so much.”

After two solid years of pandemic-induced staycations, travel has come roaring back in Europe, and peak summer vacation season is in full swing. But the return has come with myriad problems as airports and airlines who let employees go during the pandemic are feeling the strain of meeting the recent surge in demand. Long waits to check bags and get through security and passport control have become the norm, with hundreds of flight cancellations reported across Europe.

In Britain, the situation has been exacerbated by the country’s departure from the European Union, which has made recruiting staff harder, and by strikes by aviation workers who say they are not being paid enough at a time of soaring inflation.

Last month, photographs of luggage piled up at Heathrow Airport circulated on social media, suggesting that arriving at Heathrow was not much better than departing, and this past week, Delta Air Lines said it flew a plane from the airport to Detroit just to deliver 1,000 pieces of stranded baggage.

To try to cope, Heathrow followed the lead of other airports, like Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, and on Wednesday, it made the rare decision to cap departing passengers at 100,000 a day until September. To accomplish this, it asked airlines to stop selling tickets for summer flights.

The airport said that it had recruited new staff members, but that disruptions to travel were from a mix of factors, including increasing passenger numbers, flight delays being passed on from other European airports and a shortage of ground staff. The airport even reopened a terminal that had been closed for two years during the pandemic to deal with the number of flights leaving.

A Virgin Atlantic flight taking off from Heathrow last year. Airlines were critical of the cap on departing passengers and request to stop selling summer flights.Credit…Anthony Upton/Press Association, via Associated Press

“Our objective is to protect flights for the vast majority of passengers at Heathrow this summer,” Heathrow’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, said in an open letter to passengers.

Some airlines were critical of the cap. British Airways called it “incredibly disappointing news for our customers,” adding that it would have to reduce an already slimmed-down summer flight schedule. Virgin Atlantic said it supported the measure but looked forward to a plan to return flying to its regular schedule. Emirates, however, expressed its discontent more directly, saying that Heathrow, “now faced with an ‘airmageddon’ situation due to their incompetence and non-action,” was pushing “the entire burden — of costs and the scramble to sort the mess — to airlines and travelers.”

Forewarned by reports circulating on social media about hourslong lines and grim accounts from returning friends and colleagues, many passengers on Wednesday turned up at least three hours before their flights, steeling themselves.

But the sight of lines for security stretching outside the terminals still took some passengers by surprise. Outside one terminal, airport employees made announcements using a bullhorn — calling out the names of flights leaving within the hour and holding up signs signaling where passengers should start lining up. It was a blistering day by London standards, and airport workers handed out cans of water to those in line.

“We’ve never seen something like this at Heathrow before,” said Poly Bradshaw, who was shuffling through the security line for Terminal 3. But they had prepared for delays, said her father, Malcolm Bradshaw, adding that everything seemed well organized. “It’s not as though we’re in a rugby scrum.”

But other passengers said that long waits and flight delays had put them off traveling.

“I know they were shut down for a long period of time, but I think they could have planned better,” said Nicki Linke, who was waiting in a line to check in her luggage for a business trip to Cleveland — and wondering if she should have stuck with hand luggage.

Long lines are becoming the norm at airports.Credit…Isabella Kwai/The New York Times

She felt sympathy for ground-staff workers, she said, but the experience had only confirmed to her that she and her husband had made the right choice to avoid traveling this summer. “Maybe next year,” she said. “Definitely not this year.”

Past the security lines, which took about an hour at midday on Wednesday, the crowds seemed to disperse, though the problems for some passengers did not stop there.

“If I can avoid travel and flying, I will,” said Eman Martin-Vignerte, who was waiting for a flight from London to Stuttgart, Germany, that already been canceled twice, forcing her to leave and return to the airport. The delays, she said, seemed “like a tsunami.”

“They really need to get the same level of staff as before Covid,” she said, adding that she hoped the mayhem was temporary.

Even in the travel industry, workers say this summer is remarkable.

“This is first time I’ve seen this situation,” said Tobi Kerstan, a pilot for Lufthansa who was traveling to Germany from London. “It’s no longer fun to fly,” said Mr. Kerstan, who has flown for 25 years. Asked about Heathrow’s cap on departing passengers, he said he wondered how it would be enforced. “Is anyone counting the people?” he said, gesturing around at other passengers. “I would say it’s a guess.”

Low pay for ground staff working for airlines was a problem, he said, adding that a common cause of flight delays at the moment was the tight timelines for airline workers to board passengers, unload bags, refuel and clean the plane. “You are creating a never-ending problem.”

But a bigger issue to him was the economics of air travel in Europe, he said, where demand for flights had increased as airfare has grown more affordable in recent decades. “The ride with Uber to the airport is more expensive than the flight,” he said.

Those prices, he added, would be reflected in the pay of essential ground workers.

Travelers at Heathrow on Thursday.Credit…Isabella Kwai/The New York Times

Unions representing hundreds of workers for British Airways said on Tuesday that they were in negotiations over an offer to raise salaries for ground crews, which were cut during the pandemic. Some of the workers reported being subject to verbal and physical abuse from angry travelers, said a spokesman for one of the unions, GMB. Signs around Heathrow in every terminal warned that threats, verbal abuse or violence against airport staff could result in prosecution.

Some passengers did try to find a bright side, like being able to fly without the Covid tests required in many countries until recently.

“This is pretty easy in comparison,” Ms. Bradshaw said. “It is the summer holidays. It’s just circumstance still living with Covid.”

“We’re British — we’re good at queuing,” she joked.

But Gwen Nneji, who was trying to get to Ghana, was not feeling cheerful.

“The feeling you get walking into Heathrow — it’s just a transit area to get individuals from one place to another,” said Ms. Nneji, who was disappointed in the customer service she had received after she missed checking in for her flight by minutes and then heard that it had idled on the tarmac.

Efforts to get her a seat on a new flight were unsuccessful, so Ms. Nneji was giving up and heading home. “It’s just galling really,” she said.

But she would be back, she said, adding that she really needed a vacation.

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