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Covid Checks a Major Cause of Airport Delays, says Eurocontrol

Dublin Airport, April 2019
Covid Checks a Major Cause of Airport Delays, says Eurocontrol

Covid documentation checks are a growing cause of delays at airports, according to the latest figures by Eurocontrol.

Following the much-talked about delays at Dublin Airport last weekend, Eurocontrol’s latest analysis shows that while typical delays are down as a result of diminished air traffic, new causes for delays are on the rise.

With fewer flights due to COVID-19, passengers have naturally experienced fewer delays.

But baggage loading or refuelling can still be late, or aircraft can need an extra check from an engineer before leaving, so delays haven’t gone away completely.

Data from airlines in July shows the average delay per flight on departure was 11 minutes, definitely better than 18 minutes in July 2019. However, not all types of delay are down.

To track and improve their performance, airlines classify the causes of delays on departure:

  • ‘primary’ causes, the majority of which in a typical month are linked to one of the airline’s own processes, such as refuelling or aircraft technical checks;
  • ‘primary’ also includes airport-related delays such as congestion on the ramp, and air traffic management delays;
  • and ‘reactionary’ delay, which is delay carried over from a previous flight and that hasn’t been caught up.

Immigration, Customs & Health

One rare primary cause is the ‘immigration, customs and health’ category, for example for delays at passport control. In a typical year, only about 1% of delay falls in this category. (See July 2019 in the graph, for example.) This is not, however, a typical year.

During the pandemic, departure delays due to ‘immigration, customs and health’ have jumped from next to nothing to 0.6-0.8 minutes for every flight, with July showing delays of 0.8 minutes as standard for the month.

That’s 10-20 per cent of all primary delay that is down to the extra time taken, mostly at check-in, needed to check what the destination specifically needs, whether the passengers have the right combinations of test and vaccination certificates.

Even if passengers are arriving early, in some cases it’s not early enough, when there are long queues for these checks.

Moreover, being departure statistics, they do not include further checks on passengers at arrival, for which there have also been anecdotal reports of substantial delays.

More passengers over the summer mean that airlines and airports need to make even more such checks.

Eurocontrol expects data for August to be worse, but then anticipates an improvement as more staff returns to work at airports and processes become more streamlined – not to mention the end of the summer travel season.

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Fionn Davenport is the editor-in-chief of the ITTN group, including ITTN and ITTN Ireland. He's one of Ireland's best-known travel journalists and writers, with nearly 30 years' experience writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet and others.

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