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Heathrow struggles with strained post-Covid labor relations

Security officers said it had been ‘hot and hectic’ at London Heathrow Airport this summer.

As airline and airport executives try to blame each other for the chaos of summer travel, officers deal with the fallout from canceled flights and large queues at Heathrow terminals – in inexperienced teams and overworked.

‘Every day I walk in and there’s someone new,’ said a long-serving security guard, who works for Heathrow and had seen frustrated passengers resort to ‘punching’ to skip the line waiting. New recruits train for a month, but it takes another three to six months to learn the job properly, he estimated – if seasoned colleagues are on hand. Right now, “it’s the blind leading the blind,” he said, adding, “Once you’re late, you can’t catch up.”

Other staff working at the UK’s biggest airport – all union members speaking to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs – have had a similar story. Too many people went on layoff rounds at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, travel demand from Britons rebounded, but employers at Heathrow struggled to rehire in a buoyant labor market where many people found better jobs elsewhere.

BA planes at Heathrow. The airport has taken the unprecedented step of introducing a daily cap on the number of flights until September © Jonathan Brady/PA

Some of the workers who remain at Heathrow feel under intense pressure. “I used to walk into the toilet and think that if something goes wrong tonight the people in this room can deal with it,” said an engineer employed by Heathrow for more than 20 years. “Now I walk into the toilet and I think . . . He broke off and whistled in dismay.

Heathrow is Europe’s largest workplace. It’s an ecosystem that works well when tens of thousands of employees – from cleaners, caterers and cabin crew to baggage handlers, engineers and refuellers – work together seamlessly. But a recruitment and labor relations crisis is straining the system.

Airlines, including British Airways, the largest carrier at Heathrow, have responded to staff shortages by canceling large numbers of flights. Last month, the airport took the unprecedented step of placing a daily cap on the number of flights through September to minimize further disruption to travel. BA responded by suspending sales of short-haul flights from the airport for two weeks.

A line graph of the number of daily flights (seven-day moving average) showing that the number of flights in the UK remains well below pre-pandemic levels

Workers invited by the Unite union to speak to the FT at its Heathrow office said many people no longer saw the airport as a place to build a career.

“The work is the same, but the way they do it is different,” said a cleaner who had moved from one contracting company to another over a 30-year period. Crews deployed to clean passenger planes were often understaffed and turnaround times were shorter, she added. The hourly wage just £1 above minimum wage was not enough to stop people quitting.

“Heathrow was something to aim for in the past. Now that’s not something to aim for,’ said a second Heathrow engineer, who claimed there was an ‘abundance’ of jobs locally paying up to £10,000 a year more – working on the high-speed rail line 2, in data centers or for Amazon.

He added that he and many colleagues were set to see a permanent pay cut imposed when the pandemic hit, while salaries for managers were restored after a temporary cut.

Heathrow Airport Holdings disputed that claim, saying pay for the managers and frontline staff it employs directly had been “matched to market rates”. This change was made to managers before the pandemic, and the company gave those facing a pay cut the option of severance pay.

The airport also said its own security teams are back in full force and “no one is being asked to do more than they want or are safe for them”.

But Heathrow employs less than 10% of all those working at the airport, which hosts more than 400 businesses. Currently around 70,000 people work at Heathrow, down from a pandemic low of 50,000 but well below the pre-Covid peak of 95,000.

The greatest staffing pressures are on ground handling companies, contracted out by airlines to provide services such as baggage sorting. Heathrow said those businesses had around 70% staff, but were meeting demand at between 80 and 85% of pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s a labor market,” said Wayne King, regional coordinator at Unite, who saw employers hold recruiting days at hotels dotted along the airport perimeter, with only a handful of job seekers. ‘use. “Before, he would have been packed.”

King said many people had found more stable work in supermarkets or used severance pay to retrain as truck drivers. Among those who remained in aviation, there was “a lot more will to fight” over wages and conditions because “they saw that you have nothing to lose”.

Unite had elected members at most ground handling companies this year and won a better pay offer after receiving an industrial action warrant, King added. Unite is making its way ‘methodically’ through other employers: in the past month the union won a 13% pay rise for check-in staff at BA and a 12.5% ​​raise for check-in staff. supply workers after threatening to strike at the weekend at the start of the school holidays.

Some airline executives believe it will become easier to recruit as cost-of-living pressures begin to be felt. “The only way out is when people realize that they have to get out of their homes and go back to their jobs and work for a living,” said Akbar Al Baker, Qatar’s chief executive. Airways, which is headquartered at Heathrow Airport. Board of Directors as representative of the Qatari sovereign wealth fund, shareholder of the airport.

Qatar Airways chief Akbar Al Baker pictured in 2015
Qatar Airways chief Akbar Al Baker, pictured in 2015, sits on Heathrow’s board as a representative of the Qatari sovereign wealth fund, a shareholder in the airport © Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

But some in the aviation industry have acknowledged they should do more to entice staff back.

Warwick Brady, chief executive of ground handling company Swissport, said employers were working hard to attract new talent, including through social media campaigns and events for new graduates.

Salaries for newcomers have increased by around 10% over the past year, he added, saying: “We will work hard to make our industry attractive. . . we have to make sure it becomes an interesting place, whether it’s benefits, travel concessions. »

Salary remains a big sticking point for many people in lower-paying positions.

“Every day you see an ad from a colleague who has decided they can’t do it anymore,” said a cabin crew member at BA. Many people in her position worked second jobs because they couldn’t cover their bills, let alone apply for a mortgage, she added. Basic pay for BA cabin crew at Heathrow starts at £16,000, and staff compete for long-haul flights, not just for the benefits of travel, but because they pay extra allowances.

‘List night can be quite an emotional time for us,’ the BA cabin crew member said, describing a bid-based monthly travel stipend that left some staff working full steam ahead. , while others weren’t sure they had gained enough variable. pay to meet their expenses.

Suitcases stacked in the baggage claim area of ​​Heathrow Terminal 3
Unclaimed suitcases piled up in the baggage claim area of ​​Heathrow’s Terminal 3 last month © Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

BA said it was disappointed to hear that view, but offered a “highly competitive salary and benefits package” that compared well with other airlines.

Pressured working conditions and arduous working hours are nothing new to aviation, but Heathrow workers said they were previously part of a bargain with employers who rewarded long-term loyalty . Now, some feel they have been freed during the pandemic – and brought back to deal with a chaotic situation that is not of their making.

“When I started working here as an apprentice, there were 1,500 applicants and 20 people got the job. It was really something we could be proud of,” said a third Heathrow engineer. “Now I see hours of queues, little children crying. . . I am sincerely sorry for everyone who goes through this. . . I’m ashamed to work here now.

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