Arriving at London's Gatwick Airport for his EasyJet flight to Malaga, Spain, with his wife and 12-year-old daughter on April 4, Alasdair Crawley said it was like walking into the mayhem of the aftermath of a soccer game. The 49-year-old plumber from East London described long, unruly lines of angry passengers trying to determine the status of their flights and families sprawled out across the floor eating, drinking and sleeping to get through long delays.
"First, our flight was canceled and rebooked for a day later, so we lost the first night of our hotel, and then when we arrived for our new flight, it was delayed by three hours," Crawley recalled this week from his hotel balcony in Spain. "It's bliss to be here, but honestly, if I knew I had to go through the shambles at the airport again, I would have probably chosen to stay at home in my garden."
Crawley was not alone in his urge to seize the moment — or in encountering chaos when he did. Over the past two weeks, travelers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean have endured long lines at airports, flight delays or cancellations, and plenty of frustration.
Thousands of Britons have flocked to airports for the start of the Easter vacation season, which coincided with governments across Europe dropping coronavirus restrictions. But in the past two weeks, more than 1,000 flights have been canceled across Britain, upending vacation plans for tens of thousands of passengers. On April 9 alone, British Airways and EasyJet canceled more than 100 flights.
In the United States, low-cost carriers such as Southwest and Spirit were also forced to cancel flights earlier this month after technical glitches and bad weather. Additionally, JetBlue and Alaska Airlines announced reductions to spring and summer flight schedules, with JetBlue reducing its May flight capacity between 8% and 10% and saying it plans to make similar cuts to its summer schedule, while Alaska cut 2% of its flight schedule through June.
The cuts came at a time when travel demand has come roaring back, with some airlines and airports reporting the highest passenger numbers since the start of the pandemic. London's Heathrow Airport received 4.2 million passengers in March, a more than sevenfold jump from a year ago. In the United States, passenger traffic in recent months has reached nearly 90% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
"When Europe lifted its restrictions, that was an invitation to come back," said Janice Riley, 54, an American basking in the sunshine in the old town of Geneva early this past week. Riley's trip to France and Switzerland had been smooth so far — but she said she was willing to get stuck or face disruptions for the sake of going somewhere. "I just had an itch to travel and see friends and family, and taking that risk has been worth it," she said.
It is the moment the travel industry had been waiting for — "the great comeback," despite rising prices and the uncertainty over the war in Ukraine. But it seems like the new normal for travelers may be chaos driven by the continued spread of variants and subvariants of the coronavirus and travel operators who are still unable to cope with the volume of demand.
"We're in for a very bumpy and turbulent two months ahead," said Paul Charles, CEO of The PC Agency, a London-based travel consultancy firm.
Easing of restrictions, booming demand and a rise in cases
The freedom to travel after two years of stringent rules caused a sudden surge in demand for European travel. The International Air Transport Association, which represents nearly 300 airlines, expects total passenger numbers in Europe to reach 86% of 2019 figures in 2022 and make a full recovery in 2024.
The biggest issue, said Charles, the travel consultant, is that many travel companies were not prepared for demand to snap back so quickly and are now scrambling to recruit staff.
"The labor shortfall is now being seen in the fact that companies cannot operate as normal," he said.
During the height of the pandemic, tens of thousands of jobs were slashed across the aviation industry, and now many airline and airport workers are reluctant to come back to jobs that can offer long hours and low pay. The uncertainty over the future of the pandemic has also pushed people in the industry to seek more-secure career opportunities.
"Stories of unruly passengers, often long commute times and job uncertainty, as seen with COVID-19, could be off-putting for many currently seeking work," said Ralph Hollister, a travel and tourism analyst at the data analytics firm GlobalData.
Hollister said a lack of staff in security roles has contributed to the disruptions experienced at British airports, adding that the time it takes to vet and train people means that the issues will not be resolved soon.
The issues have been compounded by a record surge in coronavirus cases across Europe, particularly in Britain, which has dropped all of its coronavirus requirements for masking, testing and vaccination. Early this month, the government reported that 1 in 13 people were infected with the virus, and the World Health Organization said virus restrictions in several countries, including France, Italy, Germany and Britain, were relaxed too quickly, causing cases to rise. Coronavirus infections have also been rising in parts of the United States as highly contagious omicron subvariants spread.
In an echo of what American carriers faced as omicron spread, EasyJet said hundreds of its cancellations occurred because of coronavirus-related crew absences. British Airways has also been struggling with staff sickness but said a majority of its flights continue to operate as planned.
On Tuesday, EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren said he would have expected to see the spike in COVID-19 infections across the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe to have dropped by now, but that has not happened yet. "Until that moment in time, we'll continue to monitor the situation," he said.
Still, the airline has flown 94% of its planned schedule in the past week, the highest number of flights operated since 2019, and is confident it will be able to return to a near pre-pandemic schedule by the summer, Lundgren said.
'Time is running out'
For American travelers, one of the biggest concerns is the predeparture coronavirus test required to return home, which they feel could mean they'd be stuck overseas if they test positive. Among major Western tourist destinations, the United States is a holdout in continuing to require a negative test to enter; the Netherlands, Ireland and Jamaica all recently dropped the requirement.
The U.S. travel industry has been pushing the Biden administration to drop both the testing requirement and its mask mandate for planes and other public transportation. The American Society of Travel Advisors, or ASTA, said the inbound testing requirement is the single biggest barrier to the full recovery of the international travel system.
On Wednesday, the United States government announced that it would extend a mandate requiring travelers to wear masks on public transport, including on airplanes and at airports, for another two weeks. It has not addressed the future of the pre-arrival test requirement.
Demand for travel among American travelers for European destinations is recovering but has been dimmed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February. In a recent survey of 1,300 Americans by the travel app TripIt, 33% of respondents said they would take a trip abroad by June. The travel booking site Hopper said that, in March, 15% of international bookings on its site were for U.S. travel to Europe, down 6% since the invasion. In 2019, United States travel to Europe accounted for 30% of international bookings on the site.
"I put this trip off in 2020 and then again in 2021, but I'm in my 70s and time is running out," said Richard Zelinka, a lawyer from Naples, Florida, discussing a visit to France he has planned for June. "At a certain point, health issues will prevent me from traveling, and you just don't know what will happen in the world next year."
When Crawley, the plumber from East London, emptied the majority of his savings account to book the trip to Spain, he told his wife that it was time to "let go and live again," he said.
"I didn't want to wait for the next bit of bad news or a new COVID variant or World War III to start. It felt like now or maybe never."