Amsterdam Schiphol’s Painful Descent To Become One of the Most Feared European Airports

AMS - Amsterdam, KLM

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. For years, this was the airport you wanted to use. If you were connecting, it was fast and easy. And it largely ran on time. If you were an avgeek, I mean, how many airports actually name their runways? If you had told anyone before the pandemic that you’d rather avoid Schiphol at all costs, you’d probably get a very confused look. But thanks to pandemic mismanagement and a host of other issues that are beyond my understanding, that is exactly what has happened.

The experience for travelers has been awful. Security lines have been terribly long, and the airport has simply been unable to handle the increase in flying. Just take a look at how on-time performance has been this year to get a sense of how it’s going.

2022 Arrivals Within 14 Minutes of Schedule for Flights Departing Amsterdam

Data via Anuvu

How did we get here?

Since the early days of the Northwest/KLM joint venture, KLM had grown Amsterdam into one of the most desirable places to connect in Europe. The airport was easy to use, KLM was a good operator, and you could get to destinations big and small throughout Europe. The merger with Air France and Northwest’s merger into Delta did not change the situation. In 2010, the busiest month averaged under 85,000 seats per day. By 2019, the busiest month had just shy of 120,000 seats per day.

Then, the pandemic hit, and traffic tanked. In this regard, Schiphol was not unique, of course. Every airport saw traffic fall off dramatically, and then in 2022, they all saw the dramatic return of travel as well.

Before the summer season, it became clear that things were not ready to come back as quickly as travelers were, and that too wasn’t unique to Schiphol. There were horror stories of lost bags, long security lines, flight delays, and a host of other problems at airports ranging from Toronto to London.

In Amsterdam, it has been a unique situation. How so? I’ll let you read the list of press releases…

What’s unique about Amsterdam is just how long this problem has gone on. Since the beginning, the primary pain point has been at the security checkpoint. There just aren’t enough staff, as the progression of press releases makes abundantly clear. So why is this still going on several months later? Shouldn’t it have been fixed now?

If you ask other airports, then yes, it should have. Heathrow had more of a baggage issue than anything, as I understand it, but it had also implemented passenger caps. Those will end this Saturday. But Amsterdam has thrown in the towel on actually seeing any real improvement this year. In fact, it’s gotten worse as time has gone on. Here’s a look at scheduled flights and seats through February.

Scheduled Flights and Seats By Month Departing Amsterdam

Data via Cirium

What I can’t quite figure out is why this is extending so long. Do the Dutch really, really hate security work? That could be part of it. You never know what the Dutch are going to do. But there are clearly fingers to be pointed in many directions here.

The airport certainly deserves blame for failing to really grasp the extent of this problem. It talked a good game, but it only this month came to an agreement to actually improve wages and working conditions going forward. Note that the announcement of an agreement came just a week after the airport said it was entering negotiations. This wasn’t some long, drawn out process. The airport just figured the temporary wage increases it announced earlier in the summer would be enough.

We can also point fingers at the airport for a bad strategy for reducing passengers. As the press releases desperately note time and time again, this is a big issue for the local travelers in Amsterdam having to pass through security. But KLM runs a very large connecting hub. Why does a passenger cap make sense when KLM could have just run more flights to serve connections and limited local origins?

In true Dutch fashion, the airport has been very blunt and clear about its issues and how everyone feels. I think the press release announcing the extension of the cap through winter had my favorite quote.

Schiphol will place a cap on the number of travellers that can depart from the airport, after consulting with airlines, which are not happy about it.

KLM responded with an equally blunt press release of its own, saying…

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol has announced that it will again drastically restrict the number of departing passengers this winter. This is simply unacceptable to KLM.

At this point, all anybody wants to know is when this is going to end, and nobody seems to have a good answer. Meanwhile, those who have booked to travel via Amsterdam continue to run into trouble. The required cuts have reduced connecting options and forced people into bad situations. Even worse, some people have even gone as far as changing to connect through Charles de Gaulle instead. That’s when you know things are REALLY bad.

On top of this, the government is threatening to permanently reduce flying in Amsterdam for environmental reasons. It’s in this environment that new interim CEO Ruud Sondag has entered. Good luck to him. I mean that.

35 comments on “Amsterdam Schiphol’s Painful Descent To Become One of the Most Feared European Airports

  1. Yikes. I understand that it hasn’t been super easy to attract, hire, and retain people, and that it has taken airports a few months to ramp back up. However, it’s not like becoming a baggage handler or security agent requires months and months (or years) of training, as for pilots.

    When the airport is still unable to handle half of its peak pre-COVID volume after 5+ months of full-blown crisis mode, that’s very sad. I’d expect that level of mismanagement from an airport in a 3rd world country or from an NYC-area airport run by the PANYNJ, but not the Dutch.

    1. Hey! Keep the PANYNJ out of this! LOL. I know they can be bad at times, but are they this bad? It’s obvious no one at AMS has played airport simulator yet.

  2. There is also the (conspiracy) theory that this is just a way of getting everyone used to the idea of AMS having a 12% reduction in slots that will take place in late 2023. By the time this slot reduction takes effect, the Dutch Govt who own Schiphol will have already reduced air travel demand anyway, so the mass public won’t be upset about slot reductions !

    1. “On top of this, the government is threatening to permanently reduce flying in Amsterdam for environmental reasons. ”

      As I understand it, there’s a huge push toward the use of highspeed rail in place of short hall flying according to the YouTube channel “Not Just Bikes.”

    2. I wouldn’t even call it a conspiracy. The Dutch government has announced a cap of 440k flights/year, to be effective in late 2023: https://apnews.com/article/netherlands-amsterdam-pollution-ac23e08623f38235f201b59453b58f21

      As you mentioned, that’s 12% below the number of flights Schiphol handled in 2019. The Dutch government is basically ordering Schiphol to shrink, and it’s doing so.

      Scaling up organizations (hiring, training, etc.) takes time, so there is a long lag between making decisions and when passengers start to benefit. Schiphol management is probably looking at projections 12-24 months out and saying “We could dramatically increase our costs to meet current demand, but then we’d have to immediately shrink next year, with no way to claw back any increases in compensation or capex on equipment. Better to wait it out and grow to the new steady state, rather than this year’s demand”.

      The choice to shrink Schiphol is insane from an economic development perspective, for both Amsterdam and the Netherlands broadly. How many cities would kill to have a global airline hub, which helps attract business, tourism, etc.? But they’re doing it, and Schiphol airport management is responding to the situation they are given.

  3. Maybe they should move some of the Gouda cheese stand employees to work elsewhere. I can’t imagine anyone is buying as much Gouda as Schiphol is staffed to..:

  4. It’s been interesting to read about the AMS challenges…ironically my family commented on how efficient and easy security and passport control was at AMS when we departed in August, 2018. Did we just have a good day or has it significantly changes post-pandemic?

    1. Schiphol used to have rather terrible security (and baggage handling) but they fixed all of that in the 2010s. They redesigned the security check areas with little islands where multiple people could prepare their trays without someone breathing down their neck, resulting in less stress for both passengers and staff. Passport control was still understaffed and unfriendly, though.

      But in 2019, management decided they needed to save money on security staff and switched to different companies. Morale apparently already took a hit in 2019 – there was big reconstruction going on at the time, so I blamed the worse experience on that.

      Having earned a reputation as a bad working place is obviously a bit of a problem in a time when every industry suffers staff shortages. And, being short staffed doesn’t improve working conditions either, making it even harder to find people. Reportedly, they are now trying to fix this vicious cycle with money. We’ll see how it goes. I’m just glad I don’t have to fly right now.

      1. Martin- Thanks for details, that’s interesting to hear the history…we definitely were impressed with how efficient security was that particular morning and we did like the islands for setting up the trays, it definitely made it feel less crowded. I guess we were just lucky with immigration and getting a friendly person going through passport control!

  5. While the focus here is on AMS, the broader discussion is and should be about how well The Netherlands compares to other developed world economies and how well they have adapted to the new post-pandemic reality.
    I believe there are larger themes that go beyond AMS but do touch on the Dutch government’s desire to not just be a smaller player in global aviation but also also a satisfaction that the Dutch have the resources to adapt to a new world order. The Netherlands has imposed some dramatic non-aviation environmental policies that can only make sense if they are no longer concerned about being a significant global economic power. The Dutch have long played well above their pay grade and size but there are genuinely concerning things that are taking place in that country which raises the question if they really understand how risky some of their strategies are – and taking those risks only makes sense if you are self-confident enough that you believe you can’t fall. There are plenty of societies, companies, and people that have made massive miscalculations – far more than have successfully transitioned to a true new paradigm as The Netherlands seems to think it can.
    The issues at AMS have to be viewed within a broader global and macroeconomic context
    And the upshot is that Air France – long the laggard in the AF/KL relationship – is now the side of the house that is doing the heavy lifting.

    1. Hi Tim,

      I appreciate your perspective. As someone with several post-graduate degrees in economics who spent four years studying at University of Groningen I have to respectfully disagree. The Dutch economy slowed from 2017 to 2019, turned negative in 2020, and rebounded in 2021. During those five years, economic freedom has expanded. Lifted by improvements in scores for rule of law and fiscal health, the Netherlands has recorded a 3.7-point overall gain of economic freedom since 2017 and has moved to the top of the “Mostly Free” category.

      The Dutch government’s long-term vision is one of growth and prosperity for its people both within the European community and the world. AMS position is that of strength. It’s current decision to lower capacity is one of 4D chess. Most people studying this issue (CF excluded) can’t grasp the long-term play that Schiphol and the Dutch government are implementing. I think in due course, we’ll all see what the long-game is for AMS and the Dutch government and will applaud in kind.

      1. > It’s current decision to lower capacity is one of 4D chess. Most people studying this issue (CF excluded) can’t grasp the long-term play that Schiphol and the Dutch government are implementing. I think in due course, we’ll all see what the long-game is for AMS and the Dutch government and will applaud in kind.

        Can you elaborate at all? What’s the end goal they are working towards, and how do they expect this will get them there?

        This sounds a lot like “We have a secret plan we can’t tell you, but if we could, then you’d know it’s really great.”

        1. @Alex, if they could tell you about the plan then it wouldn’t be a secret plan, would it?

          From what I’ve seen and heard, AMS wants to reassert itself on a worldwide stage, but knows that the direction it was heading in would not permit that to happen. They’ve looked and short-term and long-term trends to ensure that this current setback won’t discourage growth in the medium and long-term. A former colleague of mine who’s now at the Pajisco Institute for Commerce’s aviation section says the airport and the Dutch government are in lock step together on the growth of the airport.

          The Netherlands economic policies generally encourage growth domestically with a special focus on private/public partnerships and AMS is no different. At the end of the day, we only have a sliver of the information available to those “in the seat,” and while playing Monday morning quarterback is a fun exercise, ultimately we have to trust those making the decisions.

      2. Hi Luuk,
        to add to your commentary above and below as well as the replies, I fully recognize that the Dutch have been very astute business people and have succeeded because of it. They have built a highly developed and successful economy and I don’t think that is going to change.
        That said, CF is absolutely correct to note that AMS has been an operational hot mess for months and they haven’t figured out to how to get it back on track. It is precisely the variability of their operation which CF notes that is of concern. LHR forced airline cutbacks and has rebuilt. CDG has powered through and is running comparably to pre-covid performance. US airlines and airports – as a result of the DOT Sec’ys pressure – are running better operationally now than they have in decades. So, it is absolutely fair to ask why AMS can’t make the return to normalcy.

        And you still didn’t address my concerns – which is that The Netherlands is aggressively embracing environmentalism and going beyond what “the system” can support including providing the real details that people want to see. Simply saying “trust me (or them)” isn’t much consolation when readers of this site understand very well how airline networks work and part of the stated goal of AMS is to reduce the number of ops and many airlines in Europe are pushing intermodalism which isn’t anywhere near proven to the same extent that a true hub and spoke airline system is (in terms of total cost, efficiency, and competitiveness). Environmentalism is a higher level need; people that are struggling to put food on the table aren’t worried about whether they are harming the earth to focus on more “sustainable” growing methods; we saw that in Sri Lanka. The Netherlands can do what it is doing because of its wealth and they might succeed but they might find that those that are less risky might achieve better results both in the near term but also further down the line.

        Therefore, it isn’t unreasonable for people to say “color my skeptical” until The Netherlands and AMS either demonstrate success with initial phases of their plan, or more importantly, explain their plan and provide reasonable goals that anyone should be able to see whether they achieve or not.

        Right now, AMS is tarnished as a hub and other hubs are doing the work KLM/DL and others used to do.

        1. Tim, LOL.. You put environmentalism as a higher level need, and is more necessary in comparison to putting food on the table, but don’t put aviation to the same comparison.

          Where aviation falls on this is a good question. It definitely is not as urgent as food or shelter. I’d take the heretical position that the planet would be okay with 30% less aviation. Its necessary for overseas and cross continent flights, but we’d be much better off environmentally with more reliable passenger rail.

          How AMS manages to transition and what trips stay as flights and what trips get moved to trains will be an interesting question, but for the future of the environment, less flights is a good thign.

          1. eerrr. Editing fail.. My first paragraph should read:
            “Tim, LOL.. You put environmentalism as a higher level need, and rightfully say it is less necessary in comparison to putting food on the table, but don’t put aviation to the same comparison.

        2. Tim: With regard to environmentalism, I think you have a valid point that political correctness has run amok amongst the Dutch political elite. I’ve always felt that the Dutch government loses touch with its middle class while becoming bogged down with misguided bioecology ideals.

          But I don’t see that relating directly to the team at AMS that has shown it can run a first-class airport for both O/D passengers and connecting traffic. Ultimately, I believe it all comes down to this: “Woe to the stranger when trouble comes, for there will be no friend to take his part.”

          1. Luuk
            I think we are more on the same page that the first couple of exchanges between us revealed.
            I do believe AMS can operate reliably; there will be some slow months coming up and I think we both hope- along w/ others – that they get their staffing and operational situations straightened out.

            Nick,
            I didn’t say anywhere that aviation is exempt from doing its part to be a better eco-steward.
            I did say that all of the methods that are being proposed to reduce flights and shift traffic to other means – including intermodal systems – aren’t really proven on the scale that hub and spoke airlines need.
            And it still comes down to competition. If someone can connect plane to plane from a city in western Europe to a secondary US city via a connection at a US hub or from Europe to Asia via the Middle East compared to a train to a hub at AMS, CDG, FRA etc and the train option costs more or takes more time, then it is not a winning option.

            And if the option is for someone in government to tell the average person that their reasons for travel are not good enough so we will reduce capacity without replacement alternatives that work for everyone, then that is simply not an environmental solution I can support.

            and airlines are buying billions of dollars of new, fuel efficient aircraft and also are using renewal/sustainable… but that is all about making change at the pace that systems can support and not running ahead driven by ideologies…

            1. Tim, Rail seems to do a good job moving people in Europe. And, it did a good job at it in the US before the rise of airlines in the 1960s.

              FWIW, government can and has shaped transportation all over the planet. The suburbs are a creation of the the US Federal Government. The airlines received significant support in the building of airports. Its not as if they’re all on their own. A government stating that their will be changes in the form of limited flights for the greater good, is not an irrational thing. If air travel gets more expensive, but train travel stays the same then people who can shift their trips, will.

              Finally, even the most fuel efficient plane is not a very efficient way, greenhouse gas wise, to move people. Airlines and other fossil fuel users have gotten a free dumping ground in the atmosphere, and that dumping ground is overflowing. Being told they can’t use as much of it as they historically have been isn’t a bad thing. Its just managing the capacity for waste.

            2. Nick,
              I have simply stated that the notion that short-haul airline flights can be replaced w/ rail that connect with long and medium haul flights is not at all proven. yes, rail works well competitively over a short and even some medium distances but there is no other way to travel long distances either from a cost effective or to generate less environmental impact.

              The notion that the government should ration services to protect an intangible, unproven goal at the expense of people’s general freedom is simply not something that any western government right now is going to pursue.
              And even if a government like The Netherlands goes down that road, someone else will take their place and traffic will move over networks that don’t espouse those ideas.

              And if you really care about global pollution, then get on India and China. They are still heading UP in their levels of pollution when most western countries are going in the opposite direction.
              There is only ONE environment and it is shared by all.

            3. Tim,
              I value this being a respectful place, but as someone who has endured a summer of wildfire smoke and high temperatures in Seattle that lasted into October, I’m going to call “protect[ing] an intangible, unproven goal” what it is: Climate change denialist bullshit.

              Climate change is real, the science is well understood that it is happening and why it is happening, although the scientists have been finding that they’ve underestimated its effects.

              Just because China and India are moving in the wrong direction doesn’t mean that The Netherlands, the rest of Europe, and the United States shouldn’t start moving in the direction that will leave this planet partly livable for those who will come.

              As for connecting long haul flights to short and medium haul rail? I don’t know how well that does or doesn’t work, since I’ve lived all of my life in a country that has chosen to invest in roads, and yes, airplanes to the detriment of our environment and current day health, to say nothing of the health of our descendants.

              One of the things I recognize about first world countries, is that when we want to do something, we will literally move mountains to make it happen. (See Kansai International for one of many examples.) If we had the political will, the top 30 airports in the US would be connected by fast, frequent, passenger rail within ten years. That is completely doable, but if an only if we had the political will, which given that there is barely the political will to maintain a functioning democracy in this country, I doubt it would happen.

              I’m sure Europe can do that to the point where it makes sense to put in five 777-300s from the US into a major hub in Europe and connect it efficiently to passenger rail. The will just has to be there. And part of making the will to do that is changing the economic motivators to make that happen.

              And since I wandered into economic motivators, in our modern world, there is no such thing as a free market, markets are created and regulated by governments. A true “free market” would look much closer to anarchy,

  6. It is not just lines at security. A family member recently missed a connection because of delays at the non-Schengen to Schengen passport control.

  7. When I have cleared security screening at overseas airports, I am always surprised at the number of passengers who have to endure a secondary screening of their baggage – because they failed to follow the established protocols. Admittedly, I go through the TSA precheck lines in the U.S., but passengers generally appear to follow the rules here.
    What if….. passengers were advised that they would have to pay a (small) fine if they were found to have a bottle of water, or hair shampoo, or….., in their baggage? When passengers blatantly ignore the advice given, and directly cause the bottlenecks there should be some disincentive! I can see that many people just try to “beat the system” and / or ignore the well publicized advice because there is no penalty for not complying.
    Yes, it would be difficult to differentiate between those passengers who do follow the rules, but forgot just once! But if the fine was small enough ($10.00 / €10.00) I don’t think too many people would get too upset over it.

    1. “in the U.S., but passengers generally appear to follow the rules here”

      I’m not sure about this. I think the real reason things often run more smoothly in the US is that the TSA is far more incompetent that security screening in other countries. I’ve had TSA Precheck as well for several years now, but before that I used to make a game out of leaving my liquids in my bag and seeing how often I got caught. My average was probably about 5% of the time that TSA would actually pull my bag out for secondary screening. Anecdotal for sure, but my hunch is that people just get away with breaking the rules more easily in the US than abroad.

    2. As much as I want to support your idea, seeing how ULCC has done so well in the past few decades, $10 is probably to much. All other issues aside, that line to pay this fee will be some real bottleneck/show with people arguing, begging, fighting, and probably throwing a tantrum, etc. Now, please excuse me while I try to get away from paying that $10 by arguing with the security personnel for that bottle of water I picked up from the hotel lounge that I really forgot about.

    3. I don’t think it’s anything to do with that, I fly through AMS monthly and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen people get pulled out for such items, often it’s just a swab which usually shows up negative. AMS has been fine for me since the first days after lockdown, 30 minutes to the gate and 90% of that being at passport control, which is getting worse and worse. 2-3 staff on with 400 people in a queue and no auto machines working. I think the problem is largely hysteria and lack of accurate information to fliers. The one time I suffered a 4 hour queue for the scanners, only 2 baggage scanner lines were open, then a 1 hour queue to passport control. The app and sites tell everyone not to arrive earlier than 4 hours, but also that it is super busy and expect a huge queue. Then when I get there at 4 hours before, there’s no queue and I sit for 3.5 hours at the gate.

  8. I just paid a premium to route my upcoming Europe trip through Frankfurt, land of maze terminals and endless bus gates, to avoid Schiphol. Never thought I’d say that sentence.

  9. I’ve flown through Schiphol four times in the last month. No problems whatsoever with queues or security. There were problems during the summer but they appeared to have been resolved. The reduction in traffic has more to do with environmental regulations imposed by the Dutch Government than poor management at the airport.

  10. As a Dutchman I have to throw in my two cents. It is undoubtedly true that Schiphol was in an unholy mess for the last 6 months (more so landside than after security – less issues for transferring pax unless you need to check in to another airline). And this is partly on the management of the airport. They did outsource security, and during the pandemic a lot of these security firms completely lost their business and thus let their staff go. That staff was mostly contractors so that the security firms could by-pass the costly social security and taxes of having a lot of personnel. Many of the people that were laid off indeed already suffered from low morale because of that pay/contract issue and the daily grind. And when there was no more work, they found employment elsewhere.

    BUT… this situation is not unique to Schiphol, nor can it or should it be blamed on an outsize overreaction by the Dutch government. It is, in fact, pure economics and the free market doing its thing (I am not defending or promoting this idea, merely stating facts). Over the summer, there were similar nightmare scenarios at various UK hubs (LHR and MAN especially) as well as across Europe.

    “Hire more people and pay them more”, is typically the offered solution. There is a current effort underway to recruit a large number of new security officers for Schiphol at a new, higher paygrade. But they won’t be eligible to work until probably next summer, when they complete their training.

    A Dutch security training diploma and clearance takes a year, and involves significant background checks. In the US apparently it takes 80 to 120 hours of training (https://jobs.tsa.gov/transport-security-officer). BTW, to become a police officer in The Netherlands requires a 2 year training, in the US it is 6 months or less.

    Finally, on the point of the environment: There is probably some overreaction by the Dutch government. But this is at the same level as California vs for instance Texas. I’d rather live in California…

  11. This is likely off-topic but I did seatac-cdg-schipol-munich last week on klm/delta and had no problems in Europe apart from bad delays due to staff shortage at klm’s baggage counter in muc.

    By far the worst airport for horrible lines at baggage/security screening was SeaTac, and I’ve noticed that as a trend for over a year now. I’d be keen to know what could be the reason for that.

    1. SeaTac was my home airport until this summer. I found it on the slightly faster side pre-Covid but over the last year, it’s been annoyingly slow. One afternoon last spring I was really fed up since there was only a long line because they only had one of the ID podiums open at the main checkpoint for C/D gates. I’m wondering about their staffing levels because every time I go through security there now it seems like podiums/checkpoints are closed and everyone’s forced through the few that are open.

  12. I flew through Schiphol airport in September & saw none of this. No long lines, no delay of my flight, no problem. Then I flew through Frankfurt Germany in October and it was a nightmare. Long lines and shuttle rides all around the airport, through buildings we had no idea where we were, garbage and trash, broken elevators, more shuttle rides to get to gates and board out in the middle of a runway- no thanks! I’ll take Schiphol any day.

  13. I flew through Schiphol airport mid-September and it was awful. First of all, we were just changing planes and they made us go through security again which took 1.5 hours. The reason was they had two security lines open with 2 baggage checks and closed one down for no reason. People were starting to get really upset and miss their flights. They were yelling and it was a bit scary for the rest of us. The gentlemen behind me in line said they closed the one baggage line because the workers were trying to create problems for the airport so they would give better salary and benefits. Kind-of like a strike at all of the passengers expense. If I have a choice, I won’t go through this airport again and I informed my travel company to avoid this airport.

  14. It’s all very simple. Pre-pandemic staff wages 18 units (choose your currency) per hour. 100 staff to do the job. Most are fired. Post-pandemic staff wages 12-14 units per hour for the same job. Try to hire the same people back to do the same job (and they say F off). Also, factor in inflation.

    So a few new hires come on board for the 12-14 units per hour (because previously, they were making 7-10 units) elsewhere. So less competent staff, for the most part, fewer bodies, less wages WIN WIN for the company and shareholders, but a disaster for the public.

    Now the disaster for the public is something that works well for other parties (will not get into that).

    So finally the companies are forced to give bonuses totaling the previous wage amount and more to entice staff. The bonus goes staff leave.

    All these companies are hell-bent on making back ALL of the money they lost in 2020-2021 – and the public and workers are paying the price.

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