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Who would want to work for the airline industry any more?


Services at a standstill, the threat of strikes and complaints about pay failing to keep pace with inflation. The predicament of the UK aviation industry as holidaymakers try to make their half-term getaways isn’t quite as bad as the one the country faced at the tail-end of the 1970s. But unless employers in the sector act to improve pay and conditions, a “summer of discontent” threatens to turn into a winter one too.

The proximate cause of the current round of check-in queues, cancelled flights and baggage mishaps is the pandemic.

Unite, the union, estimated in March 2021 that about 45,000 jobs in the UK aviation industry were shed during the first year of Covid-19 restrictions. The situation was made worse by the fact that furlough support tapered off before the travel recovery took hold, leading aviation groups to lay off extra employees.

It takes time to re-hire on that sort of scale, even more so when workers need complicated security clearances regardless of whether they’ve done the job before. Ministerial protestations that the industry has had months to prepare belie the flip-flopping on travel restrictions as the Omicron variant took hold.

The strength and speed of the rebound in demand for leisure travel has taken the industry by surprise. But there is more to it than that.

Airlines say that they are able to hire pilots, and even attract cabin crew. That may be true, though staffing levels are clearly stretched and there are problems on the horizon too. Airlines haven’t restarted training schemes. “There will come a point where all of the readily trained pilots will dry up,” said Martin Chalk of pilots union Balpa. “We think that will probably happen around the end of this year.”

The bigger problem, though, is in the unglamorous ancillary roles: check-in staff, baggage handlers, the people who put the steps out on the tarmac. Shortages in those areas are the cause of many of the current challenges. Thirty years ago many such roles were handled in-house within airlines. Staff benefited from perks such as cheap travel and the status of working for a flag carrier. No longer in most cases. Such bonuses are not on offer at outsourcers such as Swissport, Menzies Aviation and DHL.

That decline has been compounded by the erosion of the pay differential between working for a so-called ground-handler and Aldi or Amazon. Unions say that pay rises in the sector have failed to keep pace with increases in the minimum wage in recent years. Many roles only command about £10 an hour, despite offering antisocial shift patterns, delays to sick pay, angry customers to contend with, and up to three months’ wait before workers can start.

Yet the aviation industry is trying to recruit for the roles at a time where there has been a shift towards many more vacancies in lower-skilled occupations. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies earlier this year found that there were more than double the number of vacancies for warehouse workers in the five months to February than before the pandemic, with vacancies for drivers 80 per cent higher. Low-pay workers can be picky.

One option might be for the industry to ride out the peak season, hoping security clearances for staff come through and overtime can make up for some of the rest of the shortfall. But airports expect the disruption to continue. A recent survey by Airports Council International Europe found that 35 per cent of the region’s airports expected the staffing crunch to affect operations beyond the summer season.

The solution is likely to involve improving pay and conditions. The current shortage of ancillary staff is not an entirely new phenomenon. It has been an issue in the more flexible labour market of the US for years, where short notice periods have made it easy for low-wage workers to ditch jobs for an extra dollar an hour elsewhere. When Menzies Aviation addressed the problem in its 2019 annual report, it said much of the uplift in pay it offered was ultimately funded by its airline clients.

Even as airlines struggle to contain fuel increases, pay down debt and return to profit, they may have to accept paying more to solve staffing issues. Otherwise the disruption could last well beyond summer, and consumers already feeling the pinch might temper travel plans.



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