Services at a standstill, threats of strikes and complaints about wages below inflation. The plight of Britain’s aviation industry as holidaymakers attempt to make their mid-term getaways isn’t as bad as the country faced in the late 1970s. But unless employers in the sector do not act to improve wages and conditions, a “summer of discontent” also threatens to turn into winter.
The immediate cause of the current series of check-in queues, canceled flights and baggage accidents is the pandemic.
Unite, the union, estimated in March 2021 that around 45,000 jobs in Britain’s aviation industry had been cut in the first year of Covid-19 restrictions. The situation was made worse by the fact that furlough support dwindled before the resumption of travel took hold, leading aviation groups to lay off additional staff.
It takes time to rehire on such a scale, especially when workers need complicated security clearances, whether or not they’ve already done the job. Ministerial protests that the industry has had months to prepare belie the flip-flop on travel restrictions as the Omicron variant has taken hold.
The strength and speed of the rebound in demand for leisure travel caught the industry by surprise. But there is more than that.
Airlines say they are able to hire pilots and even attract cabin crew. That may be true, even though staffing levels are clearly stretched and there are also problems on the horizon. Airlines have not restarted training programs. “There will come a time when all easily trained pilots will dry up,” said Martin Chalk of pilots’ union Balpa. “We think that will probably happen towards the end of this year.”
The biggest problem, however, is the unglamorous auxiliary roles: the check-in staff, the baggage handlers, the people putting the steps on the tarmac. Shortages in these areas are at the root of many of today’s challenges. Thirty years ago, many such roles were handled internally within airlines. Staff enjoyed benefits such as cheap travel and working status for a flag bearer. More in most cases. Such bonuses are not offered by subcontractors such as Swissport, Menzies Aviation and DHL.
This decline has been compounded by the erosion of the pay gap between working for a so-called material handler and Aldi or Amazon. Unions say wage increases in the sector have not kept pace with minimum wage increases in recent years. Many roles only command around £10 an hour, despite unsocial working hours, delays in sick pay, angry customers to contend with and up to three months of waiting before workers can begin.
Yet the aviation industry is trying to recruit for the positions at a time when there has been a shift towards far more vacancies in low-skilled occupations. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies earlier this year found 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 being 80% higher. Low-wage workers can be picky.
One option could be for the industry to skip peak season, hoping that staff security clearances are obtained and overtime can make up 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% of airports in the region expected staff shortages to affect operations beyond the summer season.
The solution will likely be to improve wages and conditions. The current shortage of auxiliary personnel is not an entirely new phenomenon. That’s been a problem in the more flexible U.S. labor market for years, where short notice periods made it easy for low-wage workers to ditch jobs for an extra dollar an hour elsewhere. When Menzies Aviation addressed the issue in its 2019 annual report, it said much of the pay rise it was offering was ultimately funded by its customer airlines.
Even as airlines struggle to contain fuel increases, pay down debt and return to profit, they may have to agree to pay more to address staffing issues. Otherwise, the disruption could last well beyond the summer, and consumers already feeling the pinch could temper their travel plans.