Travel chaos: 15,000 passengers have missed flights at Spain’s busiest airport

Iberia has reported that an estimated 15,000 passengers have missed their flight connections at Madrid’s Barajas airport since March as a result of huge queues at passport control. 

A spike in demand from holidaymakers, eased Covid-19 restrictions and a lack of airport staff following months of cutbacks are believed to be at the centre of the huge agglomerations. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

Spain’s flagship airline Iberia on Monday criticised the fact that thousands of passengers at Terminal 4 of Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas airport have not made their flight connections because they are being prevented from reaching their boarding gates in time.

In many cases, this has forced ongoing flights to be delayed, and many other planes have had to take off half empty. 

Iberia has blamed the closure of e-gates at Barajas during key travel hours for the holdups, which are particularly affecting the airline’s flights to Buenos Aires, Chicago and Miami.

The Spanish carrier gave the example of a connecting flight bound for the Argentinian capital which on Monday was forced to take off without 100 booked passengers who were all trapped in the multitude at T4’s passport control area.

READ ALSO: Airport chaos in Europe – What are your rights if flights are delayed or cancelled?

It’s a problem affecting not only Barajas but also airports in popular tourist spots such as those in Alicante, Málaga, Tenerife or Palma de Mallorca, according to Spain’s Airline Association (ALA).

The issue became evident over Holy Week when more than 3,000 passengers missed their flights at Madrid’s main airport, especially as a result of holdups at third-country nationals’ passport queues.

A spike in demand from holidaymakers, eased Covid-19 restrictions and a lack of airport staff following months of cutbacks are believed to be at the centre of the huge agglomerations in Spain and elsewhere across Europe.  

READ MORE: How airports across Europe have been hit by travel chaos

Another key factor is that British holidaymakers, historically the main tourism market for Spain, are no longer EU nationals and consequently passport controls are more stringent for them and are carried out by police officers.

It’s only now after two years of slowed down travel that the prospect of catering for 18 million Brits again (2019 figures) whilst abiding by EU law is becoming a reality.

Portugal recently made headlines by becoming the first EU nation to fast-track British travellers despite their new third-country status, opening e-gates to them at airports in Faro, Lisbon, Porto and Madeira where they can scan their passports more swiftly. 

Visitors from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Japan are also reported to be able to enjoy this travel perk in Portugal.

READ ALSO: Will Spain follow in Portugal’s footsteps and fast-track UK travellers?

There is no official word yet from the Spanish government on whether Britons will be able to use e-gates at Spanish airports, which suggests they will not necessarily be willing to contravene EU/Schengen rules, at the very least until the new entry-exit EES system that will replace passport stamping with scanning is implemented (among other changes), most likely in early 2023.

So far, Spain’s Interior Ministry has “categorically” denied that the queues and delays reported by Iberia are at all “significant”.

By contrast, Spain’s Airlines Association (ALA) has called for more police officers to be deployed before the summer to prevent some of the travel chaos seen in recent weeks. An extra 200 border officials are expected to join Barajas airports before July.

For ALA’s president Javier Gándara, the solution Portugal has chosen is the easiest way to resolve many of the holdups, calling for UK nationals to be allowed to use e-gates at Spanish airports as an “exceptional measure”.

“Travel flow at our airports would be decongested and the queues that give our country such a bad image could be avoided,” he concluded.

More than 24 million flight passengers used Madrid’s Barajas airport in 2021. In 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, the figure was 62 million. 

Spain is now hoping to recover as many as possible of the 83.7 million tourists that visited the country in 2019, the seventh consecutive year of record-beating numbers, which consolidated Spain as the second most visited country in the world after France.

READ ALSO: Spain scraps Covid-19 pass rule for EU travellers

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EU delays passport scan system and €7 travel fee until 2023

Two major changes that were due to come into force in 2022 for travellers entering the EU - an enhanced passport scanning system and the introduction of a €7 visa for tourists - have been delayed for a year.

EU delays passport scan system and €7 travel fee until 2023

Although both the EES and ETIAS schemes are still due to be introduced in the European Commission has pushed back the start dates for both until 2023.

It comes amid a chaotic summer for travel in Europe, with airports struggling with staff shortages and strikes while some crossings from the UK to France have been hit by long delays as extra post-Brexit checks are performed during the peak holiday season. 

The two separate changes to travel in the EU and Schengen zone were originally due to come into effect in 2020, but were delayed because of the pandemic. Now the EES system is expected to come into effect in May 2023, while ETIAS will come into effect in November 2023. 

The EES – Entry and Exit System – is essentially enhanced passport scanning at the EU’s borders and means passports will not only be checked for ID and security, but also for entry and exit dates, in effect tightening up enforcement of the ’90 day rule’ that limits the amount of time non-EU citizens can spend in the Bloc without having a visa.

It will not affect non-EU citizens who live in an EU country with a residency permit or visa.

There have been concerns that the longer checks will make transiting the EU’s external borders slower, a particular problem at the UK port of Dover, where the infrastructure is already struggling to cope with enhanced post-Brexit checks of people travelling to France.

You can read a full explanation of EES, what it is and who is affects HERE.

The ETIAS system will apply to all non-EU visitors to an EU country – eg tourists, second-home owners, those making family visits and people doing short-term work.

It will involve visitors registering in advance for a visa and paying a €7 fee. The visa will be valid for three years and can be used for multiple trips – essentially the system is very similar to the ESTA visa required for visitors to the USA. 

Residents of an EU country who have a residency card or visa will not need one.

You can read the full details on ETIAS, how it works and who it affects HERE.

Both systems will apply only to people who do not have citizenship of an EU country – for example Brits, Americans, Australians and Canadians – and will be used only at external EU/Schengen borders, so it won’t be required when travelling between France and Germany, for example.