26 Nov 2022

Long queues, delayed flights and irritated passengers: inside two years of chaos at New Zealand's airports

8:45 am on 26 November 2022

By Andrea Vance of Stuff

People standing in a queue at Schiphol airport in Netherland as holiday season puts a strain on airlines.

File image. Photo: PHIL NIJHUIS / ANP MAG / ANP via AFP

The email had all the hallmarks of a tired, frustrated customer. Fired off by a traveller at the end of his tether with long queues, delays and impassive staff, indifferent to disrupted journeys.

But although it echoed the complaints of weary passengers up and down the country, this missive couldn't be ignored. It was written by the boss of the country's third-busiest airport.

Steve Sanderson put the Aviation Security Service (or Av Sec) - which screens passengers and baggage - on blast.

"I am as frustrated as our customers," he wrote. "We continually get complaints ... I even received a phone call from a Minister saying 'was I aware of the security queues'?"

Sanderson, who wrote the email before he stepped down as Wellington Airport chief executive in April, was tired of excuses as to why long lines were snaking through his airport, extending out from screening checkpoints.

"I suggest you create a War Room ... and find ways to give a customer service that is acceptable. And that should include not just waiting for more trained staff, but brainstorming new ways of addressing the issues in the interim."

The government minister mentioned in Sanderson's May 2021 note wasn't identified. But, after being regularly buttonholed by grumpy travellers in Air NZ's Koru lounges, Transport Minister Michael Wood certainly had concerns.

Wood started asking questions of Av Sec officials in May and June of this year, sending a series of queries about average processing time for passengers, costs and staffing levels, just as New Zealand was preparing to open its borders to international travel. Officials were called in for 'please explain' meetings.

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Michael Wood Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Around the same time Bryn Gandy, the acting Transport Ministry chief executive, raised Av Sec "rostering challenges" at Auckland Airport with Civil Aviation Authority boss Keith Manch. Typical of New Zealand's outsized bureaucracy, the Transport Ministry is the parent agency of the CAA, which in turn oversees Av Sec.

This winter saw demand for travel surging and wild weather battering the country, and frustration was building.

The wait times at domestic airports were nothing like the horror queues experienced by holidaymakers trying to escape for the summer through London's Heathrow or Dublin airport.

But Kiwi passengers - used to taking a more relaxed approach to boarding a plane - were growing ever-more impatient with the bottlenecks.

It was the airlines who bore the brunt of their frustration. Documents released to Stuff under the Official Information Act reveal multiple complaints to Av Sec from both Air NZ and Jetstar, detailing delayed aircraft, offloaded passengers and unhappy customers.

In May 2021, a senior Air NZ manager wrote of Dunedin Airport: "[staff] were absolutely, completely overwhelmed ... the anxiety level of the passengers was slowly increasing ... this is not an acceptable situation. Both aircraft went out very late."

Passengers missed connecting flights, and the delays had a knock-on effect to the airline's schedule for the rest of the day. " ... Now can I ask you to look to work with us and solve this terrible situation," he wrote.

The following month in Auckland, five Air NZ flights ran late in one morning after an X-ray machine was closed down. The delays totalled well over two hours.

August of that year saw "massive queues" at Queenstown airport, with an airline staffer reporting an 112-minute backlog. It was costing the airline money: "With missed connections this creates compromised customer experiences with some having to bus to their final destination, additional work for our team not to mention cost for buses, and in some case accommodation and meals for customers," they wrote.

In March 2022, Christchurch airport notified Av Sec that two Jetstar flights - to Auckland and Wellington - were delayed by 16 and 13 minutes because of passengers stuck in a queue.

And in June, Jetstar wrote to say that 25 of its passengers didn't make it through security - and their bags were offloaded from two aircraft because of security congestion at Auckland airport.

The following morning another six missed their flight.

Screening passengers and their baggage for dangerous items is undeniably essential - as well as a legal requirement. But long lines are now a persistent irritant.

At the capital's airport on Thursday morning - as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Housing Minister Megan Woods and MP Todd McClay all waited to board flights - queues zigzagged through the stanchions and spilled out on to the retail concourse.

And despite the interventions - from the Beehive and the upper echelons of the public services - the aviation sector is braced for more chaos over Christmas.

Welcome to Queenstown

It's the country's premier destination - but tourists departing Queenstown endured some of the worst disruption.

Inundated with complaints, an Air NZ manager summarised comments made to its online customer survey over six months, and sent them to Av Sec in May. Over 154 flights there were 17.5 hours of delays.

"Seemed a bit of a shambles," one customer wrote. "Slowest and most challenging of nearly anywhere worldwide," another judged. A frequent complaint was that too few lanes were open.

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Queenstown Airport. Photo: RNZ / Belinda McCammon

Glen Sowry, the airport's chief executive, said there were several months of debate about Av Sec resourcing in the resort town. But he says "throwing rocks" at the agency isn't a solution.

"The really important thing is that there are sufficient resources before queues build up. Because once queues build up, you cannot recover. There's enough Av Sec staff here in Queenstown to man screening lanes."

But he's concerned that rostering is centralised in Wellington - a concern echoed by airline insiders Stuff spoke to.

This is "determining which staff are on which lanes, how many are open, at what time of the day, etc", Sowry said. "We have a very clear view that we've expressed to Av Sec - and they appear to have been responsive - to it being managed locally."

But that is yet to happen.

When Covid-19 hit

Like every other industry, the aviation sector has been grappling with staffing shortages and high rates of absenteeism, as employees fell sick or isolated.

But Covid-19 wasn't the full story. Even before the pandemic rolled over the planet, travellers were starting to experience longer-than-usual waits.

In February 2020, a week before the first confirmed case, a weekend Six60 concert was blamed for "a messy start" at Auckland's domestic terminal.

"The first three jet departures took small delays as a result of slow security processing," Air NZ complained to Av Sec's business support manager.

Indeed, an analysis by consultants PwC, for the CAA, showed timeliness performance targets were being missed long before Covid struck.

Between 2015 and 2017 there were four flight delays a year due to screening activities. In 2018, this jumped to 19 and then 24 in the following year (five due to security incidents).

"Everyone has their challenges. We can have staffing issues that cause planes to leave late - it's nobody's fault completely," an airline insider said.

"But the issues that Av Sec have do pre-date the pandemic. The pandemic has exacerbated them, quite frankly. It goes to their ability to manage their resource."

When lockdown and travel restrictions grounded flights, Av Sec avoided the mass lay-offs seen in other areas of the business by deploying staff to patrol at supermarkets and carry out compliance checks at quarantine and isolation centres.

By June 2020, the country was back in Alert Level 1 and the airports were starting to fill up.

The deployment of more jets - larger and better for social distancing - meant additional strain on staff.

Security lanes in Wellington that were designed to cope with 540 passengers in an hour, were now seeing up to 1000.

"That's not going to work, leading to long and unacceptable queues," one Av Sec manager wrote in August 2020.

But the agency had a recruitment freeze, and 155 staff were still working on the Covid response.

"Recruitment is seen as an undesirable option for the foreseeable future," the agency's workforce manager wrote.

With plans for a Pacific 'travel bubble' and the installation of Automated Smart lanes​​ in early 2021, "the pressures will only increase ... the leadership team knows we need to make some urgent calls."

By April that year, airlines had increased their flight schedules by approximately 10 percent.

It was estimated 254 extra security staff would be needed - including 117 to man the lanes with new technology.

It was difficult for the agency to plan as the country yo-yo'd through alert levels. And it was already squeezed. Much of the agency's funding comes from passengers, through levies included in their ticket price - just under $9 for domestic travellers. The g​overnment, not Av Sec, sets the levy.

The cost per passenger screened had been climbing since 2016, due to investment in improved technology, PwC noted.

"That has significant knock-on effects in terms of increased personnel numbers," the consultants wrote.

Av Sec asked the government for funding for an extra 90 staff in the May 2021 Budget. "We were only looking for additional funding for the FTEs [full-time equivalents] we weren't already funded for," Karen Urwin, Av Sec's operations group manager, said.

"We are demand funded, but we will never have enough funding and staff because otherwise your ticket would be extremely expensive if we had to fund for peak events. No organisation is going to do that because most of the time you would see staff standing around, not doing very much."

Urwin says the agency is facing "significant staff shortages". But: "We started with a much better baseline because we retained all of our staff through the lockdown, so we fared much better than our counterparts overseas."

She plays down the wait times New Zealanders face.

"In some [overseas] airports you queue for hours ... you get passengers who clearly have never travelled overseas, and they think that in New Zealand, that's the worst thing in the world. You should see some of the emails that we get, some of them are priceless. You just need to fly through the States, Dublin or even Sydney, crikey."

The pushback

Airports are a "really complex organism", Urwin says.

She has a point - and it is one echoed by her colleagues as they responded to complaints from other parts of the sector.

The smooth running of an airport depends relies on different organisations playing their part - from the government agencies like Av Sec, Customs, Immigration, Police and Ministry for Primary Industries, to the airlines, airports and contractors.

But in a bid to recoup lost profits, airline's flight schedules increased at a faster rate than Aviation Security could upscale their resources.

For many frequent flyers, poor communication from airlines is nothing new. But delays, last-minute changes to aircraft type, and higher numbers of passengers than the agency had rostered for were putting already stretched staff under strain.

The email that prompted Sanderson's tetchy reply, had the title: "collective responsibility is required at Wellington Airport to manage peaks."

"Aircraft substitutions, gate changes, closing Koru lounges, and network delays are causing these delays," Av Sec general manager Mark Wheeler wrote.

"Even in normal times these were challenging at Wellington given its design of two domestic screening points, let alone trying to come out of a pandemic."

The airline insider argues the lines of communication are skewed.

"It is a nuance. Av Sec consider the airport to be their customer, not [the airlines]. That's where some communication problems come from. They tend to have more deep and meaningful conversations with the airport than they do with the airlines."

The airlines are proactive in advising Av Sec of their customer requirements, the source insisted.

As queues built, tensions ran high - at one point managers had to organise a shared morning tea because Wellington's Av Sec staff felt bullied by their aviation colleagues. In another incident, the agency demanded an apology when a pilot told passengers their plane was departing late because of screening delays.

Passengers were also taking their frustration out on security officers, who were pulling long hours and working overtime. "Our staff have encountered some pretty ugly abuse, and it's really unfair," Urwin says. "It's not their fault - they are doing they best they can in really trying circumstances."

Wellington Airport chief executive Matt Clarke declined to be interviewed, and did not answer a series of questions from Stuff.

In a written statement, he said the pandemic was challenging. "The emails reflect some of the frustration felt at the time," he said. "There is still work to do, but we know Av Sec and other agencies are monitoring service levels, and we are working with them to help wherever we can."

Air New Zealand's chief operational integrity and safety officer, David Morgan, says the company typically doesn't provide comment about another organisation - but says it was busy working behind the scenes with border agencies to provide a "seamless travel experience".

"We understand that the challenges Av Sec face are part of a global systemic challenge. With the effects of the Covid pandemic, we understand all border agencies are working hard to provide more resource in order to match the level of travel demand.''

Jetstar did not respond to a request for comment.

The Koru loungers

There is another group who must take responsibility for the heaving terminals: Us.

Out of the habit of travel, many passengers were turning up to airports unprepared for screening, emails from Av Sec to the airlines noted. There was also a change to the rules - over-the-ankle footwear must now be removed - and this was further slowing people down.

Then there were Koru members. For those of us in need of porridge and barista-made coffee before catching a red-eye, the temporary closure of Auckland's airside lounge was inconvenient. For Av Sec it was a real headache.

On finding the doors shut, Koru members went to the regional lounge, which saw them passing through security twice, doubling security officers work. They begged Air NZ for better signage and communication with members.

Others were lingering a little too long over their free sauvignon blanc - a particular problem in Queenstown where the lounge is sited landside before security.

Ultimately, our breezy approach to air travel culture may have to change. Since the March 15 terror attack, the threat level has increased - and New Zealand also has to meet international standards.

"The days of people just being able to stroll on up 20 minutes before the flight, those days are over," Urwin says. "The security situation in New Zealand has changed a lot and so our security needs to keep pace with that."

She says the agency "will always endeavour to process people in a really short space of time". But Av Sec is about to launch an awareness campaign to prepare holidaymakers for the busy Christmas period.

"Leave plenty of time," she says. "For domestic you should be there a good hour before your flight is leaving. Don't leave going to the security through to the last minute. Think about what you're putting in your bag. The more stuff that's in your bag that you can't have, the slower it's going to be."

Air NZ is resolving the problem by creating a new entrance which will require members to pass through security first.

* This story was first published on [Stuff https://www.stuff.co.nz/travel/travel-troubles/130507082/long-queues-delayed-flights-and-irritated-passengers-inside-two-years-of-chaos-at-new-zealands-airports].