Airport meltdowns: Tips if you’re headed to Europe this summer

Jul 11, 2022

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This summer is already proving to be one of the most chaotic air travel seasons in recent memory, with European destinations in particular experiencing unprecedented travel disruptions.

With British Airways flight cancellations, continued labor actions and strikes threatened across the continent, as well as the ongoing chaos at Amsterdam Airport Schipol (AMS), it promises to be a challenging summer for any traveler hoping for a relaxing vacation in Europe.

There’s nothing you can do to prevent an airline’s staffing problems, industry strikes or airport meltdowns. However, there are a few actions you can take to “keep calm and carry on,” as the Brits like to say.

Certain strategies and planning techniques may improve your chances of getting where you want to go, or at least make a cancellation easier to manage.

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The latest European airport problems

Last week British Airways narrowly averted a staff strike that would have plunged the airline and London’s Heathrow Airport into further chaos. The carrier also canceled more than 10,000 of its short-haul flights across Europe, adding to its previously announced 1,300 cancellations for the summer. TPG estimated these cancellations could affect between 1 and 1.5 million passengers.

This number of additional people competing for limited flights in Europe will continue to drive up airline pricing, reduce availability (and options for changing flight plans during disruptions) and increase crowding in flights and at airport counters and service centers.

It’s not just a problem with individual airlines, either.

Heathrow Airport asked 10 different carriers to cancel flights last week due to airport crowding.

“We are expecting higher passenger numbers in today’s morning peak than the airport currently has capacity to serve, and so to keep everyone safe we have asked airlines to remove 30 flights from the morning peak for tomorrow only,” TPG reported the airport spokesperson as saying.

United Kingdom government transport agencies have recommended that airlines institute further preemptive cancellations to prevent airport crowding and better manage airport operations.

Amsterdam’s Airport Schipol faces continued overcrowding and flight cancellations, leading to six-hour lines for security and many canceled flights.

American Airlines took the extraordinary step of ending all ticket sales to the destination for the month of July after KLM halted any new bookings to the airport during a busy weekend.

Multiple airports in Spain are expected to face crowding, cancellations and frustrated travelers this month as Spanish workers at EasyJet and Ryanair announced strikes on various days throughout the month of July.

On July 7, the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office issued a warning for travelers planning a Spain trip, saying “Planned strike action in July may cause some disruption to EasyJet and Ryanair flights to and from Spain. If you think your travel plans may be affected, you should consult your airline for the latest travel updates.”

With EasyJet’s recent COO resignation, don’t expect a quick fix to problems at that airline.

Related: The key dates travel is set to be disrupted in Europe this summer

How to plan for airport chaos

suitcases all over airport
(Photo by Jonas Walzberg/picture alliance/Getty Images)

Airport staffing problems and wildcat strikes are out of your control. However, there are certain actions you can take in advance of your flight to prepare for potential airport chaos, flight cancellations and scheduling snafus.

Pack carry-on suitcases only

Airlines are having well-documented issues with baggage handling, with masses of travelers beginning their vacations without their luggage.

Particularly with connecting flights to and around Europe, checked bags may not arrive with you at your destination. Last-minute flight changes or reroutings may mean checked bags get lost in the shuffle.

When possible, packing only carry-on luggage can help you escape this problem. Bringing just a roller bag on your Europe trip also makes you more nimble to grab a replacement flight or make last-minute travel changes without the worry of checked bags.

Related: 7 steps to take when an airline loses your luggage

However, with many airlines’ cabins completely sold-out and passengers competing for that limited overhead luggage space, you may be forced to gate-check your carry-on, even after all of your planning.

TPG has some tips on the best way to keep your carry-on with you, including leveraging your airline status, booking the best fare classes and knowing your airline’s baggage-size limits.

Related: 15 packing hacks for traveling with just a carry-on

Use direct flights if possible, avoid troubled airports

Regardless of the airport you choose, the more connections you have, the more chances for cancellation or delay.

If it makes financial and timing sense, book direct flights whenever possible — those extra dollars you spend may end up saving you a lot of hassle.

If your itinerary choices include different connection airport options, avoid those like Amsterdam and Heathrow that are facing notable struggles.

Leverage available travel tools

Staying up to date on your airline and flight status can help you predict and manage delays and cancellations. Use all the channels available to you: email notifications, text notifications, the airline’s Twitter feed and even airport Twitter feeds.

“Be sure to download your airline’s phone app and make sure their contact information is updated and notifications turned on,” said Limor Decter, travel advisor at Embark Beyond.

He advises his clients to check on flight status, weather and news — both where the flight originates and where it’s going — a day or two prior to departure.

Should things go wrong, Decter advises using your travel agency for support as agencies have direct access to and clout with airlines.

“We can often connect with the right people to rebook a flight that is canceled,” he explained.

Related: Check out these new Google trip-planning tools

Apply patience, persistence and politeness

(Photo by AndreSR/Getty Images)

Even the best-laid travel plans sometimes go awry, often through no fault of your own.

When this happens (and it most likely will this summer), think about packing the “three P’s”: patience, persistence and politeness. Traveling with these three items in your mental suitcase will better help you navigate your travels.

It can also reduce stress levels even as the airline loses your physical suitcase.

Being flexible, prepared and patient is now more important than ever with the current travel landscape, according to Embark Beyond’s Decter.

Politeness is a powerful tool

Even on the best of days this summer, staffing shortages are challenging airlines, airport security, baggage counters and phone centers. Being polite to airline customer service representatives, either in person or on the phone, is not only a nice thing to do, given the amount of stress they face, but it may also inspire them to take that extra step to help rescue your travel plans.

There’s a great amount of discretion available to call center employees in terms of how many options they research for your rebooking before they give up and leave you stranded at your destination.

Related: How to quickly reach a customer service agent

Apply persistence in rebooking

Given the vast number of cancellations and delays, it pays for passengers to be proactive in their rebooking.

As anyone who has recently tried to change an itinerary knows, airline customer service phone wait times have been horrendous — sometimes measured in hours.

Try a multipronged approach to rebooking — contact your travel agent if you used one; check on the airline’s website, app and Twitter feed; and with in-person representatives at the airport — both at the customer service center and with gate agents.

If you have airline lounge privileges, go there to talk to a customer service representative, as the line will likely be shorter.

Related: Your flight is canceled or delayed — here’s what you should do next

Be patient when trouble hits

Given the fact that your Europe travels may likely well be disrupted, packing your patience is a vital tool for coping with the stress of the situation.

Keeping your cool even as things heat up will help you better manage the disruptions.

Practicing meditation and breathing techniques is one way to manage stress. Simply stopping for an iced tea or juice in the airport may provide just the pause you need.

Finding less crowded and sometimes “secret” airport areas where you can relax during airline delays can also be a great strategy for maintaining your patience during a long travel day.

For longer delays, consider finding an airport hotel with day rates where you can check out of the chaos for a few hours for some isolated quiet time.

Related: 6 tips for keeping your cool during airport meltdowns

Bottom line

Air travel to and around Europe this summer faces (and will continue to face) challenges due to airline and airport staffing, labor disputes and overall capacity issues.

TPG recommends that travelers planning any Europe trips this summer stay connected to the latest news from airlines and airports.

Also, plan ahead to try to avoid current trouble spots like Amsterdam’s Schipol, London’s Heathrow and low-cost destinations in Spain.

When travel plans force you to some of the busiest airports and destinations, try reducing your travel disruption risk by packing only carry-on suitcases, leveraging your airline or travel status to skip lines and upgrade cabins.

As always in these unpredictable times, pack your patience to cope with the chaos.

Featured photo by Benjamin Girette/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

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