Passengers queue to check-in inside the departures hall during pay-related strike action by EasyJet Plc at Lisbon Airport in Lisbon, Portugal. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: UAE travellers with holiday plans for the UK and other European countries should brace themselves for delays, cancellations and a range of other inconveniences as disruptions at airports in the continent are expected to continue during the Easter holidays and well into the peak summer travel season.

Since Europe and the UK are a hive of strike action right now, with many employees unhappy that sky-high inflation has not been matched by higher wages, airports and public transport services across the EU and Britain are suffering disruptions. And that, in turn, has caused flight cancellations and delays in airports across Spain, Portugal, Germany and France.

The UK is among the worst affected. Ten days of strike action by security staff at Heathrow started on March 31, resulting in British Airways cancelling more than 300 flights during the busy Easter holidays. Over 2 per cent of London Heathrow’s total flights were cancelled last summer. Since the summer of 2022, UAE carriers Etihad and Emirates had to cancel several flights to Germany, France and the UK due to industrial strikes, all this while aggressively resuming their operations to pre-pandemic capacities.

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Aviation analyst Sean Mendis said: “It is quite the summer of discontent brewing, and travellers should brace themselves for delays.” UAE travellers still have to deal with sky-high airfares and visa-related delays. Travellers still have to wait weeks till they get an appointment for the Schengen visa, and non-stop economy airfares (for travel from April 21 to 28) start at Dh3,335 (Dubai-UK via British Airways) and go up to Dh4,595 (Dubai to Lisbon on Emirates). Airfares went up 35 to 40 per cent compared to ticket prices during the same time last year, said Sahana Shetty, Managing Director of Awesome Travel and Tourism.

STOCK Heathrow Airport
Passengers at London Heathrow. Ten days of strike action by security staff at Heathrow started on March 31, resulting in British Airways cancelling more than 300 flights during the busy Easter holidays. Image Credit: Reuters

Is it going to be better than last summer?

Fortunately, the disruptions won’t be as bad as airports and travellers experienced last year, according to aviation analysts, as airports in Europe are on the way to recovery post-pandemic.

OAG’s Chief Analyst, John Grant, said, “We probably can expect some disruption again, although not at the same levels as last year and for different reasons.”

Passenger traffic across the European airport network increased by 69 per cent in January compared to last year, when Omicron-related travel restrictions had halted the recovery, according to airport trade body Airport Council International (ACI) Europe’s latest air traffic report.

But this progress comes with a slew of challenges. According to the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol), there was a 33 per cent increase in arrival delays in 2022 compared with 2019, reaching 16.9 minutes per flight on average. Peak periods easily exceeded that average. The difficulties were that 6.9 per cent of 2022 scheduled flights didn’t take off.

What’s causing the disruptions?

OAG’s Grant explained, “This summer, the issue will be industrial disputes within the broader travel ecosystem, such as ATC strikes, control authorities and security areas where many working groups seek significant pay increases. So not directly the airline’s fault, and in many cases, not the airport, but they will become innocent bystanders in those disputes.”

Moreover, the inability to use Ukrainian or Russian airspace is another reason for the delays. “Now, whilst this issue was with us last year, the activity volumes were only just picking up; now we are back closer to nearly normal operations,” added Grant.

A big reason for the delays and challenges during 2022 was that airports needed to plan their resources adequately and promptly to deal with the sudden spike in passenger numbers.

Mendis explained, “I think part of the challenge is going to be how to manage the increase in capacity from pandemic era lows as it continues to rebound towards pre-pandemic peaks. While has been plenty of time to plan for 2023, the same problems (albeit with different drivers) are already showing their heads.”

Moreover, due to the rustiness of airlines’ and airports’ operational processes from the pandemic and limited capacity and resources, airlines and airports face technical or operational difficulties that can result in delays or cancellations, said Linus Benjamin Bauer, Founder and Managing Director of Bauer Aviation Advisory.

Gain for UAE carriers, hubs

Aviation experts have also said the disruptions in European air travel could have advantages and disadvantages for UAE and Gulf carriers, depending on the specific situation and the strategies they adopt to respond. Mendis said, “These are a huge advantage for carriers who do not have hubs in Europe.”

Gulf carriers can capitalise on these opportunities by ensuring their operations run smoothly, maintaining high service standards, and promoting their hubs as a reliable and efficient alternative to European connections.

“If European hubs face significant delays and cancellations, passengers may consider using Gulf airports as an alternative connection point, especially for long-haul flights between Asia, Africa, and Europe. This could result in increased traffic for Gulf carriers and airports,” said Bauer.

Gulf carriers like Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad are known for their high-quality service and extensive route networks. If European carriers face disruptions, some passengers may fly with Gulf carriers instead, expecting a more reliable and comfortable experience.

That said, this could also result in a spillover effect on global air traffic, including operations of Gulf carriers. “For example, delayed or cancelled flights from Europe to Gulf hubs could affect the schedules and capacity of connecting flights. Also, if the disruptions are significant enough to affect overall air travel demand, this could impact the demand for flights operated by Gulf carriers,” added Bauer.