Why Are Airports Still in Chaos and How Long Will It Take to Settle Down?

airport delays sydney australia

Sydney airport is reportedly in “chaos” for the second time in a month. It comes as airports around Australia were inundated during the Easter break, with reports of flights departing without luggage and hours of queuing across the country.

Images shared on social media documented the hundreds of passengers standing in long lines over the weekend. Both international and domestic terminals were affected, with people reporting online that just six of the 17 security gates were open to process the throngs of passengers.

It’s something of a familiar scene in the post-pandemic travel world. As COVID restrictions come down, people are eager to get off on their first international trip in years. However, airlines appear to be unprepared to handle the new influx of travellers, with experts suggesting that this chaos could be ongoing for months.

It’s not just Australia that is going through this either. In both the UK and the US, long waits at airports, missed flights, and lost baggage seem to be a theme.

The cause of all of this is thought to be the lack of staff at airports and airlines following mass layoffs during the pandemic.

Here’s what you need to know about why the airports are so chaotic right now and how long it might take for them to get back to normal.

Why Are Airports so Busy?

There are a number of factors at play here that have all worked together to create the perfect storm of passenger delays and long queues.

You might remember that, during the pandemic, airlines like Qantas laid off huge numbers of staff, outsourcing roles to other organisations. Many of these staff have yet to return — if they ever will — so airlines are going through a bit of a hiring drive at the moment.

Staff capacity is therefore still not 100%, while passenger volumes are estimated to be reaching 90% of pre-COVID levels. This is primarily the reason as to why airports are not the most fluid of places right now.

Sydney Airport told The New Daily that they are still struggling with staffing shortages and that the impacts of COVID isolation on their staff are also taking its toll.

“We have significant COVID-related staff shortages and we’re also working to rebuild our workforce in a really tight jobs market. Unfortunately, this is an industry-wide issue and airports and airlines around the world are experiencing similar challenges.”

Staffing shortages don’t just extend to direct airline staff either. The Guardian reported in April that catering companies were struggling to keep up with demand, with planes waiting up to an hour on the tarmac for in-flight food to arrive.

“Since Qantas outsourced these jobs, it hasn’t been as visible an issue because flight demand hasn’t been the same as before COVID. But since last week, it’s been getting that busy again. These baggage handling companies are running with no fat, it’s about cutting costs,” an unnamed source told them.

The Transport Workers’ Union has linked Qantas’ decision to outsource 2,000 baggage handling jobs to the “catastrophic scenes” seen at airports over Easter, however, Qantas has rejected these claims.

Last year, as borders were set to open, aviation industry experts warned that airlines would take years to get back to capacity and it appears we’re seeing those predictions play out. Staffing is one issue, however many airlines also had to ‘ground’ their fleets, storing planes in remote locations until they were in need again. Technical issues like these are likely to still be having residual effects on the industry.

When Will Airports Get Back to ‘Normal’?

As above, it’s not just Australian airlines that are dealing with this chaos. In Europe, airlines are cancelling up to 100 flights a day as loosening COVID restrictions arrive at the same time as holiday plans. The same thing is happening in the US, where airports are seeing seven times the passengers they were 12 months ago.

The New York Times has written that the post-pandemic return to travel has simply swamped unprepared airlines which have been unable to hire adequate staff due to the financial pressures brought about during lockdowns. The big picture is that airlines simply didn’t predict people would be travelling again in such huge numbers so soon. Layoffs or resignations, in the tens of thousands across the global industry, have just not been made up for.

As for how long this is going to continue, experts are warning this could well be the new normal, at least for the time being. Aviation consumer advocate Christopher Elliott told 7 News that the scenes we’ve been seeing are just “a preview of things to come.”

“I do think things are going to get worse,” he said, adding that “the [Northern Hemisphere] summer will be chaos.”

Huge demand, coupled with a lack of flights, fuel price increases, staff shortages, and unprepared airlines are not likely to go away anytime soon as we all look to book that holiday we’ve missed out on for the past two years.

For now, airports are telling passengers to arrive at least two hours ahead of their departure time for domestic flights and three hours ahead for international.

Checking in online is going to save you time at the airport, as is making sure that everything is packed properly, and that you aren’t carrying anything improper, like liquids over 100ml, in hand luggage if you’re flying international.

Until staff shortages are made up for, it’s likely that we will see scenes like this for at least the near future.

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