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Why one of Europe’s top airports has become a ‘crazy mess’

<i>Arthur Van Der Kooij/ANP/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Schiphol Airport is one of the world's busiest airports for international passenger traffic.
ANP/AFP via Getty Images
Arthur Van Der Kooij/ANP/AFP/Getty Images
Schiphol Airport is one of the world's busiest airports for international passenger traffic.

Blane Bachelor, CNN

Hours-long lines for security that often snake outside under tents. Untold numbers of angry passengers who have queued in those lines — yet still missed their flights. Worker strikes and delayed or lost baggage. Condemnation by major airlines, most notably KLM.

At Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, labor shortages continue to fuel unprecedented chaos that began in the spring, prompting many travelers and aviation insiders to wonder what has happened to an airport long considered one of the most efficient and highly regarded in Europe — if not the world.

The beleaguered airport — the world’s third busiest for international passenger numbers in 2021 — has continued to cut flight capacity, infuriating airlines such as KLM, the national carrier of the Netherlands whose hub is at Schiphol. The latest round of cuts asked airlines to implement reductions up to 22% for the winter season — a “hopeless situation, lacking any perspective,” KLM said in a release.

KLM added that the situation is “damaging our reputation among passengers who are keen and willing to travel after the extended Covid crisis.” The airline estimates it has incurred more than 100 million euros (about $96 million) in damages as a result.

Over the summer, several airlines, including Air Malta, TUI and Transavia, opted to shift flights from Schiphol to other airports, according to Simple Flying.

Many have placed blame on mismanagement, and on September 15, Dick Benschop, president and CEO of Royal Schiphol Group, announced his resignation. Benschop will remain in place until a successor is found.

Benschop was a keynote speaker at the World Aviation Festival in Amsterdam, a conference attended by about 5,000 aviation industry professionals, where Schiphol’s struggles were a common topic of conversation.

In different presentations across two days, Benschop openly acknowledged Schiphol’s “severe operational issues driven by staff shortages.” He said management is committed to fixing the problems by providing a “reliable and predictable” passenger experience, improving job conditions and worker pay and working with airlines to build back capacity.

But he also hinted that the challenges aren’t over — a disheartening prospect for passengers with upcoming flights during the fall school break across the Netherlands.

“Those conditions, those labor market constraints, will not disappear overnight,” he said. “That’s what we are dealing with and how we are dealing with it. And of course for everybody involved, it’s extremely hard work. If you let customers down, and there are moments that that really happened, it’s extremely frustrating. It’s painful. But we will get through it.”

During the course of the conference, Schiphol was hit with yet another hurdle when the Dutch parliament announced that it seeks to further limit the airport’s yearly maximum number of flight moments from 500,000 to 440,000 to reduce emissions and noise pollution.

Benschop called the potential reduction a “very risky approach.” It would hit KLM, Schiphol’s largest user, especially hard, as the airline would have to drop about 30 routes to meet the new limits, according to Dutch media outlets including Financieele Dagblad and NL Times. In a statement, KLM said it wants to discuss alternate solutions, such as fleet renewal, with the government.

‘Race-to-the-bottom’ strategy

Staff shortages, which have hammered the entire aviation sector in the wake of the pandemic, have been especially problematic at Schiphol. The challenge became painfully obvious starting on April 23 — the first day of spring holidays in the Netherlands — when KLM ground crew went on strike, causing enormous disruption.

The chaos continued throughout the summer, as shortages for security workers caused massive security lines. The issue was partly eased thanks to a 5.25 euros hourly bonus the airport implemented for security workers during the travel high season, according to Joost van Doesburg, Schiphol campaign leader for FNV, the union representing about 40% of Schiphol’s employees.

The bonus, however, didn’t apply to airport cleaners, who decided to strike in late June, according to Dutch agency ANP.

After the bonus was scrapped following the summer season — a decision questioned by many aviation and labor insiders — many workers, predictably, left in search of higher-paying jobs. As a result, the queues have surged again at Schiphol, especially on weekends.

Joost, who described current conditions at Schiphol as “a crazy mess,” condemned such cost-cutting measures as part of a “race-to-the-bottom” management mindset that has underpinned many of Schiphol’s woes. What’s needed, he said, is more established worker schedules, less outsourcing of airport operations, and, of course, better worker wages.

“If you’re now working at a supermarket, you can make much more money than being a security employee at Schiphol Airport,” Joost said. “They probably now need to come back with what we saw on emergency measures, but also make sure they do everything they can to implement sustainable… structural changes to improve jobs at Schiphol Airport.”

Passengers, meanwhile, remain baffled and frustrated by the ongoing problems.

“It’s insane [that] this hasn’t been resolved,” said Fadi Bizri, a venture capital and technology consultant who spent hours in check-in, security and passport check lines at Schiphol on both ends of a recent business trip from his home of Beirut.

Bizri, who had to sprint to his gate to arrive 10 minutes before departure (the flight was eventually delayed), counts himself as one of the “lucky ones” who didn’t miss his flight. “I checked in my luggage so I had only a backpack so I could run like crazy,” he said. “I don’t know how you do it with kids, or people who are elderly who have physical constraints.”

Bizri and many other passengers have taken to social media to vent their frustrations, documenting the hectic situation alongside such hashtags as #SchipholChaos and other, more scathing monikers. Writer Heleen van Royen struck a creative note with a recent Tweet entitled “Schiphol: The Movie,” showing photos of long lines in and outside the airport that she snapped en route to a vacation.

Even Schiphol employees themselves have been caught up in the mess as travelers. In a presentation about Schiphol’s data optimization strategy at the World Aviation Festival, Tor Bøe-Lillegraven, chief data officer at Royal Schiphol Group, showed a photo of the zigzagging lines outside the airport, saying that he, too, endured a four-hour wait with his family on their way to a vacation.

But the problems go beyond long security lines. The staff shortage has impacted other airport operations, including baggage handling and passenger disembarkation. It all creates a ripple effect that can mean additional flight delays and a negative passenger experience, further eroding the airport’s traditionally strong reputation.

In a September 30 release, the airport said it’s actively working to improve its employment conditions, including better wages, more consistent worker schedules, and recruiting more staff. A media spokesperson for Schiphol denied CNN Travel’s requests for an interview, citing “other priorities this week” in an email.

What can passengers do?

Some travelers like Bizri, who have recently experienced Schiphol’s chaos, advise prospective passengers to avoid it altogether. Instead, they recommend flying out of alternate airports, including Rotterdam The Hague or Brussels Airport in neighboring Belgium, or traveling by train.

But those who can’t avoid Schiphol can try a few strategies that might minimize their hassles. The airport’s home page is a good start: It indicates whether to expect a normal or busy travel day and provides estimated wait times based on specific flight information, and notes that passengers are “welcome at the airport” four hours before departure.

For on-the-ground updates and passenger feedback, the Facebook group Schiphol live in English provides up-to-date intel about wait times, delays and other issues among more than 8,300 members.

A few overall trends that have emerged in the group: Fridays through Mondays are generally the most crowded days at the airport, with queues continuing to build later in the day. Many group members also suggest bringing snacks and drinks in case of a long wait (airport staff sometimes provide stroopwafels to queuing passengers, but not always). Not checking bags is also recommended.

Schiphol has also implemented a plan to compensate passengers for missed flights and other expenses caused by long lines. Some travelers recommend that once arriving at the airport, passengers should snap a selfie that documents the time in case such proof is needed for a compensation claim.

Finally, priority status doesn’t always guarantee smooth(er) sailing at Schiphol. Some travelers have reported that the priority line isn’t always open, and many airline lounges have been packed to capacity as of late, limiting day passes for purchase.

‘Just go with the flow’

That was the case for Ugne Lipeikaite, who frequently travels to Africa for her job, during her most recent experience at Schiphol. Lipeikaite had a 14-hour layover in Amsterdam on her way back to Santiago, Chile, where she lives, and originally planned to leave the airport to meet a friend. But, upon the advice of airport staff because of the long queues, she decided to stay.

When Lipeikaite finally cleared the “quite chaotic” four-hour security line for connecting flights, she went to a KLM lounge only to find it wasn’t selling day passes. But she still managed to find a little corner of quiet: at Schiphol’s airport library.

“I work with libraries, and it was very nice that they had a library so I stayed [there] most of the time,” Lipeikaite said. “On a really long trip with many connections, you just learn to be calm and just go with the flow. You also just start appreciating the small things. You know, we also currently have an Ebola outbreak in Uganda, and people are really scared for their lives. … Life doesn’t end with you being uncomfortable for a couple of hours. There are much bigger things.”

Top image credit: RAMON VAN FLYMEN/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

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