Even airline employees are having trouble finding a seat home from Europe this summer


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International passengers walk through the arrivals area at Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport on November 26, 2021 in London, England.
Leon Neal | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Airlines want people to take a European vacation this summer — as long as it’s not their employees.

Carriers are discouraging their staff from using their employee perks for travel to and from some of Europe’s biggest airports, warning that getting a seat home will be difficult.

The moves come as airport labor shortages and industry strikes have made European summer travel challenging, just as airlines were hoping to capitalize on higher bookings after a Covid pandemic slump of more than two years.

American Airlines has barred staff from only using their flight benefits for personal travel from London Heathrow Airport through “at least” Sept. 11 and had temporarily banned the use of those perks from Amsterdam, through July 31. United Airlines has prohibited the use of buddy passes — deeply discounted flights for friends and family — on trips through London Heathrow through at least the end of August.

United is also telling staff about the challenges with overseas travel this summer and to prioritize customers, a spokesman said.

Those decisions came after Britain’s busiest airport established departing passenger caps in an effort to ease congestion this summer.

Free and deeply discounted tickets are a selling point for airlines as they seek to staff up to meet a jump in bookings. But carriers also want to fill as many seats as possible with paying customers. Using those staff travel perks as a so-called nonrev or nonrevenue passenger means flying standby, compared with the confirmed space of a paying traveler.

While getting a free or discounted seat is often a gamble during peak periods, this summer is proving especially tough for airline staff dreaming of a cheap European vacation.

“Many European airports are experiencing overcrowding, significant delays and passenger caps, greatly limiting non-rev departure availability,” American Airlines said in a message to staff on Aug. 5. 

The message said that only “a handful” of travelers trying to use buddy passes recently for flights back to the U.S. were accommodated, and that those trying to use the passes would likely be stuck in Europe for an extended period.

Strains at some European airports could persist after the peak summer travel season. Earlier this month Amsterdam Schiphol said it would cap passenger departures into October.

“The purpose of setting a maximum is to ensure the safety of passengers and employees and to create a reliable process at the airport,” the airport said in a statement.

The issues aren’t just limited to Europe. JetBlue Airways paused standby pass travel, including for staff, between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Guayaquil’s Jose Joaquin De Olmedo Airport due to “heavy flight and bag loads” into the Ecuadorian airport, according to an employee note seen by CNBC.

Correction: American Airlines has barred staff from only using their flight benefits for personal travel from London Heathrow Airport through “at least” Sept. 11. An earlier version misstated the terms of the pause.

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