Security officials said it was “hot and busy” at London’s Heathrow Airport this summer.
As airline and airport executives try to blame each other for the summer travel chaos, officials are facing the fallout from canceled flights and huge queues at Heathrow’s terminals – with inexperienced and overworked crews.
“Every day I come in and there’s someone new,” said one long-serving security guard, who works at Heathrow and has seen frustrated passengers resort to “fisticuffs” at line jumping. New recruits train for a month, but it takes another three to six months to learn the job properly, he calculated — if experienced colleagues are on hand. At the moment, “it’s the blind leading the blind”, he added, “once you’re behind, it’s impossible to catch up.”
Other employees at Britain’s biggest airport – all trade union members speaking to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs – had a similar story. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic many people left in the redundancy round. Now, British demand for travel has increased, but Heathrow’s employers have struggled to re-engage in a buoyant labor market where many people have found better jobs elsewhere.
Some workers at Heathrow feel under intense pressure. “I walk into a toilet and think, if something goes wrong tonight, the people in this room will be able to deal with it,” said one engineer who has worked at Heathrow for more than 20 years. “Now, I go to the toilet and think. . .” He braked and whistled to express frustration.
Heathrow is the largest workplace in Europe. It’s an ecosystem that runs smoothly when tens of thousands of employees – from cleaners, caterers and cabin crew to baggage handlers, engineers and refuelers – work seamlessly together. But the recruitment and labor relations crisis is pushing the system to breaking point.
Airlines, including Heathrow’s biggest carrier, British Airways, have responded to the staff shortage by canceling a large number of flights. The airport last month took the unprecedented step of putting a daily cap on the number of flights until September to ease further travel disruption. BA responded by suspending sales of short-haul flights from the airport for two weeks.
Workers invited by union United to speak to the FT at its Heathrow office said many people did not see the airport as a place to build careers.
“The work is the same, but the way of doing it is different,” said a cleaner who has moved from one outsourcing company to another over a period of 30 years. Crews assigned to clean passenger jets were often underpowered, and turnaround times were short, he added. An hourly wage of just £1 above the minimum wage was not enough to stop people leaving.
“Heathrow used to be something to aim for. Now, it’s nothing to aim for,” said a second Heathrow engineer, who claimed there was an “abundance” of jobs locally paying up to £10,000 a year – working on the High Speed 2 rail line, data In centers or for Amazon.
He added that he and many colleagues were set to see permanent pay cuts as the pandemic kicked in, while managers’ salaries were reinstated after temporary cuts.
Heathrow Airport Holdings disputed the claim, saying that salaries for directly employed managers and frontline staff were “in line with market rates”. The change was made for managers before the pandemic, and the company offered a severance package option to those facing pay cuts.
The airport also said its own security teams were back in full force, and “no one is being asked to do more than they want, or is safe for them”.
But Heathrow employs less than 10 per cent of all those employed at the airport, which hosts more than 400 companies. Currently, around 70,000 people work at Heathrow, a pandemic low of 50,000, but well under the pre-Covid peak of 95,000.
The greatest staffing pressure is on ground handling companies, subcontracted by airlines to provide services such as baggage sorting. Heathrow said about 70 percent of these companies are staffed, but are servicing demand that is between 80 and 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
“It’s a job market,” said Wayne King, Unite’s regional coordination officer, who has seen employers run recruiting days at hotels along the airport’s perimeter, with only a handful of job seekers turning up. “Before, it was packed.”
King said many people found more stable work in supermarkets or used redundancy pay-offs to retrain as heavy goods vehicle drivers. Among those left in aviation, there were “very willing to fight” over pay and conditions because “they see you have nothing to lose”.
United voted for members at most ground handling companies this year, and won a better pay offer after receiving a mandate for industrial action, King added. Unite is working “systematically” through other employers: in the past month, the union has secured a 13 per cent pay rise for check-in staff at BA and a 12.5 per cent rise for refueling workers after threatening to strike at the weekend. At the beginning of the school holidays.
Some airline executives believe it will be easier to recruit as cost-of-living pressures begin to bite. “The only way out of this is when people realize they have to get out of their homes and go back to their jobs and work to earn a living,” said Akbar Al Bakr, chief executive of Qatar Airways, who lives in Heathrow. Board as representative of the Qatari sovereign wealth fund, a shareholder in the airport.
But some in the aviation industry admit they need to do more to lure employees back.
Warwick Brady, chief executive of ground handling company Swissport, said employers are working intensively to attract new talent, through social media campaigns and programs aimed at new graduates.
Salaries for new starters increased by about 10 percent last year, he said, adding, “We will work hard to make our industry attractive. . . We need to make sure it’s an interesting place, be it benefits, travel concessions.
Pay is a big sticking point for many people in low paying roles.
“Every day you see an announcement from a colleague who has decided they can’t do it anymore,” said a cabin crew member at BA. Many people in his position took on second jobs because they couldn’t cover their bills, let alone apply for mortgages, he added. Basic pay for BA’s Heathrow cabin crew starts at £16,000, and staff compete against each other not only for travel allowances for long-haul flights, but also because they pay extra allowances.
“Roster night can be a very emotional time for us,” said a BA cabin crew member, describing the monthly allocation based on bids, which has left some staff out of work, while others weren’t sure if they earned enough on the shift. Pay to meet your expenses.
BA said it was disappointed to hear the approach, but said it offered a “highly competitive salary and benefits package” that was better than other airlines.
Pressured working conditions and punishing shift patterns are nothing new in aviation, but Heathrow workers said they were part of a deal with employers that rewarded loyalty over the long term. Now, some feel they were left out during the pandemic — and brought back to face a chaotic situation they didn’t make.
“When I started working here, as an apprentice, there were 1,500 applicants and 20 people got the job. It was something to be really proud of,” said Heathrow’s third engineer. “Now, I see little kids crying, lines for hours. . . I am truly sorry for anyone going through this. . . I feel ashamed to work here now.”