Airport chaos: what threatens the start of vacation in Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich

Less than a week in Berlin and Brandenburg, around a month in Hesse and Bavaria – then the summer holidays will also start in these federal states. If the conditions in Cologne and Düsseldorf are a foretaste, you can imagine what threatens the start of the holidays at Germany’s three largest airports in Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich.

Canceled flights, mountains of abandoned luggage, queues the length of which rivals the length of motorway traffic jams – such travel chaos has never existed in Germany. For many travelers, the summer vacation ends at check-in. The cause is a problem that not only plagues airports: a lack of workers.

BER is at full staff – but there are still problems

This does not necessarily affect the airports themselves – BER, for example, explains when asked by FOCUS Online: “We are 100 percent with the staff. There weren’t any during the pandemic either terminations and no other job cuts either.” With some of the operator’s tasks, a certain target would have to be met, for example with the airport fire brigade – “everything else would be irresponsible”.

Nevertheless, similar problems are likely to arise there as well. Because many of the tasks that you might think the airport would take care of have long since been outsourced. Example BER: Here three companies – Wisag, Swissport and Aeroground – are commissioned with various tasks behind the scenes, such as baggage handling. If there are no employees here, the whole operation comes to a standstill.

The situation is similar with the security checks. The airport is not responsible for them, but rather the federal or state police, depending on the airport. The authorities also hire service providers to do this. This means that the entire airport system is not a closed unit, but consists of many intertwined actors. The tolerance for failures is correspondingly low.

“It’s simply for cost reasons”

“It all starts at check-in. For example, Lufthansa employees used to stand at the counter. Now the staff of service providers work there,” explains Gerald Wissel, managing director of the Hamburg consulting firm Airborne Consulting, to FOCUS Online. “It’s simply for cost reasons. Having your own employees with a collective agreement is expensive.”

These conditions run through the entire company. “Handling, loading and unloading, cleaning, refueling – these are all our own service providers who offer their services to the airlines,” Wissel continues. The provider with the minimum personnel costs gets the contract for this service because it can offer the minimum price in this way.

“Passengers often only see the bottlenecks at check-in or security controls. But there is also a lot going on in the background, and of what use is it when loading goes smoothly but the tractor driver isn’t there? The problem we are having right now is multifaceted,” says Wissel.

Staff shortages at these service providers – mainly because employees have migrated to other industries during the pandemic – can also lead to massive problems, even if airlines and airports themselves have enough employees. If then there is also the fact that entire shifts are canceled due to corona, chaos is programmed. BER spokesman Jan-Peter Haack puts it this way: “You can have the most beautiful clockwork, if a gear wheel is missing, it no longer runs.”

Frankfurt and Munich have cut jobs

In addition to the service providers, not all airport operators like BER are at full strength. Fraport, the listed operator of Frankfurt Airport, has cut 4,000 jobs during the pandemic. “With the massive slump in traffic at the beginning of the Corona crisis, we had to gear our company to staying in economic balance,” explains the group. This also included job cuts. Fraport employed almost 18,200 people in the first quarter of 2022. At the end of 2019 there were still over 22,000 employees.

Fraport is now working on filling the gaps. “Our subsidiary FraGround is currently looking for new employees for baggage and ground handling. This year we want to hire up to 1,000 new employees,” Fraport said. As a result of initial measures, 870 new employees have already been recruited.

Munich Airport has also shrunk as a result of the pandemic: before the corona virus, the airport employed 10,000 people; currently there are only 8,700 employees. But: “We see ourselves in a good position for the rush at the beginning of the holidays,” said Munich on request.

Passengers at Munich Airport also enjoy a special advantage. “The security checks in Bavaria – in contrast to all other federal states – are not carried out by the federal police and their subcontractors, but are in the hands of the Bavarian authorities.” These checks are carried out by the security company Munich, a company that is 100 percent Free State belongs. The employees there are paid according to public service tariffs. The fluctuation among these employees is correspondingly low.

There are other reasons for the chaos

In addition, the chaos is not always due to the staff. Another problem is that flights are not evenly spaced throughout the day. “Extreme peaks arise. In Frankfurt, especially in the early hours of the morning and just before noon, there is a volume of traffic that almost reaches the levels of 2019,” says Fraport. Frankfurt Airport is therefore working with the airlines to straighten out the flight schedule and schedule more flights at times with less traffic.

Finally, there are factors that the industry – and the tourists – are currently facing. These include the weather conditions, but also an acquired closure of airspace for war overflights in the course of the war in Ukraine. Air traffic control in France recently went on strike, which also delayed overflights, for example to the desired destination Mallorca. It was only this week that the German air traffic control system broke down. Two weeks earlier, a similar disruption paralyzed air traffic over Switzerland.

How the airport system could be overhauled

Nevertheless, says aviation expert Wissel, the airport system should be fundamentally reconsidered in view of the situation. According to Wissel, airport operators now generate half of their sales with retail space, advertising and parking. But none of this matters to the airlines.

“I would appreciate it if the airlines shared in such income,” says Wissel. The airline cannot save on fees, for example for take-off and landing. The only leverage left is the processing, which is outsourced to the cheapest provider. If the airlines had similar additional revenues as the airports, higher wages could be paid for the tasks behind the scenes – and the employees who migrated during the pandemic might then still be there.

Another point is whether we want to continue to afford to fly cheaply. “Anyone who used to search for flights in a reservation system, for example from Hamburg to New York, would see the flights sorted by travel time. That was the criterion – the faster, the better. Today the cheapest flight is at the top of the list. When low-cost airlines made price the top criterion, there was cost pressure on the airlines,” says Wissel.

For precisely this reason, the airlines and airport operators have downsized during the pandemic – and underestimated how quickly demand would soar again. An absolute miscalculation, says Wissel. The industry has saved itself into chaos. And there is no question that no traveler is currently getting any of this, no matter how cheap the flight may be.

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