Airports, airlines rein in summer plans to avoid repeat of last year's chaos
By Allison Lampert, Joanna Plucinska and Toby Sterling
(Reuters) - Airports are taking steps to avoid gridlock during the upcoming holiday travel seasons, with some limiting flights during peak hours to avoid the long lines and luggage piles that marred last summer.
The sudden rebound in air travel demand during last year's holiday season as the pandemic subsided in Europe and North America caused chaos at some airports which were short of staff to handle the flood of passengers.
While smoother holiday travel is expected for Europe and North America, airlines and airports which learned tough lessons on holiday travel in 2022, are taking a more prudent approach as global traffic rebounds roughly to pre-pandemic levels.
Canada's largest airport, for one, has set hard limits on the number of commercial flights that can arrive or depart in any given hour during peak spring and summer hours, the operator of Toronto Pearson International Airport told Reuters.
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) also said in an emailed statement it will cap the number of passengers that can arrive internationally, or depart to the United States through each terminal in a given hour.
"The GTAA has taken decisive measures designed to flatten peak-hour schedules for the March break and the upcoming summer season," said the authority which did not give further details.
"These slot measures strike a balance between airline commercial interests and the capabilities of the entities across the entire airport ecosystem."
Air Canada, the country's largest carrier, said the GTAA's limits were accounted for in its plans, while rival WestJet Airlines said the limitations "have created hurdles and required adjustments when planning our transborder and international flying."
Despite extensive planning and hiring this year, some airlines and airports are still wrestling with industry staff shortages, including baggage handlers. And some are also dealing with labour disputes, including expected strikes in the coming weeks for the UK border force and disruptions in France and Germany from strike action.
That has some airlines showing restraint on flights despite surging demand, analysts say.
"I would expect airlines to prioritise operational resilience over pushing networks to the limit, after the experience of last summer," said Bernstein analyst Alexander Irving.
Germany's Lufthansa AG said it has cut summer flights by an unspecified amount due to shortages of personnel like ground handlers at airports in Frankfurt and Munich.
"The adjustments in our schedules are a precautionary measure in advance in order to avoid short-term cancellations in the summer season," Lufthansa spokesman Andreas Bartels said.
Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, a key hub for Air France-KLM SA, said on Feb. 21 it would limit passenger numbers to 66,000 departing passengers per day during the May vacation season – a big increase from levels imposed last year amid chaos and long lines, but still 8% below 2019 levels.
The airport is grappling with staffing shortages and airlines have been asked to cut their ticket sales by around 5% on peak mornings during spring break, Schiphol spokesman Stefan Donker said.
In Britain, Heathrow airport confirmed ad hoc flights would not be added to peak scheduling times during the summer.
While airports have been staffing up to avoid the crippling labour shortages that curbed capacity last summer, governments are also being pressed to add more border agents.
In Canada, the GTAA said it has already constrained transborder flights for several months to account for U.S. and Canadian border "staffing levels" along with air traffic controllers.
Air traffic control manager NAV Canada said it currently employs about 1,900 air traffic controllers across Canada, but did not provide earlier data. An industry source said there were around 1,700 controllers in Canada in late 2021 compared with about 2,000 before the pandemic.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Canada Border Services Agency were not immediately available to comment on staffing.
Aviation analyst James Halstead said airports like Heathrow have learned from last summer's errors which bodes well for this year's season.
"Let's hope it's better than it was last year," said Halstead, managing partner at Aviation Strategy.
"It couldn't be worse."
(Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal, Joanna Plucinska in London and Toby Sterling in Amsterdam. Editing by Jane Merriman)