22 June 2022

Better regulation is the key to solving Europe’s aviation chaos

By Robert Tyler

Three-hour queues at security in Stockholm, long delays at Heathrow, cancelled flights at Amsterdam, and an entire day’s worth of departures scrapped at Brussels – Europe’s aviation sector is in chaos. Most strikingly, in each different country passengers have a different scapegoat, be it Brexit, labour unions, or simply too many other travellers.

The reality, however, is that most of these delays stem from Covid era short-sightedness and the failure to offer the right exemptions to the security sector.

At the height of the pandemic, it made economic sense to either furlough or let go of airline and airport staff – people weren’t travelling therefore there was no need for them. Those people who had worked as cabin crew, baggage handlers, and airport security were thus forced to find alternate means of supporting themselves. Many found themselves working in the part-time economy – taking up roles as delivery drivers, hospital auxiliaries, or security guards elsewhere. Crucially, they would often find themselves working multiple different jobs over a short period of time, and it is here that the problem lies.

Since 9/11 and the War on Terror, employees of airlines and airports have understandably been subject to strict security vetting, including detailed background checks and reviews of previous employment. Checks for security staff have been particularly stringent. However, as many former airport workers took up part-time jobs during the pandemic, vetting them has become more complicated.

As such, across the continent there is a shortage of security staff working at major airports. Both contractors and in-house outfits are short-staffed, with the lack of workers leading to longer waits for passengers. In Stockholm for example, this has resulted in three-hour average wait at security for non-domestic flights. At Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, dozens of flights have been cancelled – including several entire days.

Naturally, the extra burden has been passed on to existing airport staff, who in many countries are now asking for better working conditions and pay increases. In Belgium this has resulted in a day-long strike that cancelled all departing flights – potentially costing airlines hundreds of thousands of Euros in compensation. 

Airport security staff are not alone in feeling overworked  – the day after that Belgian strike, ground crews and cabin crews also downed tools – causing further delays and cancellations. Similar industrial action has also been discussed in the Netherlands and France. 

The solution to much of the current travel chaos lies in better regulation. Former airline and airport staff should be given an option for expedited vetting, especially if they were already known to the airline before. Indeed, priority should be given to returning staff on this basis. Equally, some kind of priority system for ex-servicemen and former police officers might also help to guarantee more staff in post – as such people will already have been subjected to strong vetting in their previous careers.

Whilst the benefits of detailed checks on security staff are self-evident, we also need a dose of pragmatism is needed to resolve these issues.

Ultimately, airports are the front doors of nations; they reflect the character of what a traveller might expect throughout the rest of their time in the country. To be held up by delays caused by short staffing, all because of official short-sightedness during the pandemic, reflects poorly on European states. Urgent reform is needed, to ensure that people can get to their destination on time, and do so safely.

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Robert Tyler is the Senior Policy Advisor at New Direction Foundation for European Reform based in Brussels.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.