Anarchy in the air

Airline delays increase amid summer holiday crunch

airport delays germany summer vacation season
Turbulence even before takeoff. Source: DPA

On Monday, the German airline industry will take out full-page newspaper advertisements to beg passengers’ forgiveness for an epidemic of flight delays. The unusual move is a response to a year of increasing chaos in Germany’s skies.

According to the airline watchdog EUclaim, 15,571 flights were cancelled in Germany between January and June of this year, and 3,778 were more than three hours late. In the corresponding period last year, the same figures were 8,826 and 2,268.

European Union rules entitle passengers delayed for more than three hours to compensation of up to €600 ($695). EUclaim says the total compensation bill from January to June could hit €480 million. Roland Keppler, CEO of the holiday airline Tuifly, told Handelsblatt the delays could place a huge financial burden on the industry.

As well as triggering passenger compensation, delays impose other costs on airlines: Schedules have to be radically revised at short notice, aircraft redirected, and crews paid overtime. Summer is traditionally when airlines make the most money, balancing out the leaner winter months. If costs mount this summer, some German airlines may be pushed deep into the red.

Last year’s bankruptcy of Air Berlin, at the time Germany’s second-largest airline, has been a major factor in the mess. Other German airlines leapt in to buy up the insolvent carrier’s aircraft, routes, landing rights and staff.  Unfortunately, some airlines bit off far more than they could chew.

airport delays germany summer vacation season

Mr. Keppler puts it diplomatically: “In the rush to defend market share and traffic rights, planning was somewhat too aggressive.” In practice, this means airlines now face a simultaneous shortage aircraft, spare parts and pilots, just as Chinese airlines are offering huge premiums to attract experienced staff.

The worst-hit airline has been Eurowings, Lufthansa’s low-cost subsidiary, which is attempting to fulfill an over-ambitious flight schedule. “We can only apologize,” said Oliver Wagner, the airline’s chief commercial officer.

Strikes in France? Quelle surprise

Observers point to other factors underlying the steep rise in delays and cancellations. Security bottlenecks at many airports play a role, with security companies unable to respond quickly to increased passenger numbers. They complain that authorities are slow to approve technology that could speed up lines.

Air traffic control has also been impacted by increased passenger numbers. It takes years to expand capacity and train new staff. Eamonn Brennan, head of Europe air traffic authority Eurocontrol, recently said that without more infrastructure investment, delayed flights could increase sevenfold by 2040.

Endemic air traffic control strikes do not help. On Saturday and Sunday, French controllers will walk out yet again, disrupting flights right across Europe. On Tuesday, the airlines Ryanair and IAG launched a legal challenge against the French government, arguing their weak handling of the strikes infringes EU law.

There seem to be no easy fixes for the airport chaos. Leasing aircraft, training pilots, and sorting out schedules will all take time. Mr. Wagner of Eurowings is optimistic, but not very. “Plans for July and August look more stable,” is the best he can offer. If you’re flying in Germany any time soon, be prepared for more delays.

Jens Koenen leads Handelsblatt’s coverage of the aviation and space industry and also writes about the IT industry. To contact the author: koenen@handelsblatt.com

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