In this alternative review of the summer 2022 travel season, Juan A. Gomez, Head of Market Intelligence at ForwardKeys, poses the question, “How would European travel recovery have evolved without the airport chaos and flight cancellations?”

Following some setbacks at the beginning of the year – namely the emergence of the Omicron Covid variant and the escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war – travel recovery in Europe appeared to be firmly on the right track heading into summer. Restrictions were being eased throughout the continent, and the stage was set for a peak season reminiscent of pre-pandemic summers, albeit still without many travellers from Asia.

A new stumbling block

But then came a new stumbling block – with severe staff shortages following the pandemic leading to widespread chaos at European airports, consumers saw their travel plans affected, and in some cases derailed, by flight cancellations, baggage delays and long security queues. Airlines and airports reacted to this situation by scaling down operations and adjusting schedules.

Although intra-European seat capacity was reduced by a relatively small 6%, this equated to a loss of almost 10 million seats. Furthermore, the chaotic scenes that dominated television screens around Europe during the height of the disruption had a severe impact on consumer confidence.

Online interest in flight cancellations and delays is a useful metric for gauging consumer anxiety, and it is interesting to note that searches peaked around the Easter- and summer-holiday high seasons, when many consumers will have been preparing to travel abroad. As interest in the disruption reached its highest level during the summer season, following British Airways’ cancellation of all flights from Heathrow on 14 June, ticket purchases saw a significant drop-off.

ForwardKeys analysed several destinations, and each yielded similar results, reinforcing what we have always known – that negative publicity is bad for business.

What if the airport chaos hadn’t happened?

As logic would dictate, and as the data confirms, the lifting of travel restrictions has a clear positive correlation with ticket purchases. After an initial dip in early 2022 with the emergence of Omicron, air travel picked up again heading towards the summer season before hitting another, sharp trough in June – this time due to the airport chaos in Europe. Without this disruption, and with more and more restrictions being lifted as the year drew on, it is reasonable to assume that travel recovery would have followed the same trend that was developing between February and June 2022, progressing steadily until reaching its seasonal peak.

The results of a ForwardKeys analysis, which drew on the number of cancelled flights by country and the number of travellers we expected to depart on those flights, align with this hypothesis.

Looking at three key European markets – the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands – our analysis shows that recovery without the disruption would have been four to five percentage points higher than it was in reality. For businesses across the travel ecosystem, this will have come as yet another setback on the long and bumpy road to recovery.

What lies ahead for airports?

With the number of travellers decreasing after summer, ForwardKeys foresees the issues easing off in due course. However, there may be further obstacles ahead as travel recovery hits new peaks during high seasons such as the UK half term in October.

Looking at confirmed tickets for international departures to the rest of Europe from the UK during the upcoming autumn half term, we can see one example of a period of high demand that may put European airports, and particularly British ones, under strain. Ultimately, the ability of these airports to cope with such peaks – and finally overcome the issues that have afflicted them since spring – rests on their capacity to ease staff shortages by attracting new employees. Even then, long training periods will delay any real solution to this ongoing challenge. The coming months look set to be decisive.


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