UK

Heathrow struggles with fraught post-Covid labour relations

Security officers said it had been “hot and hectic” at London’s Heathrow airport this summer.

While airline and airport executives try to pin the blame on each other for summer travel chaos, the officers are dealing with the fallout from cancelled flights and big queues at Heathrow’s terminals — in teams that are inexperienced and overworked.

“Every day I come in and there’s someone new,” said one long-serving security guard, who works for Heathrow and had seen frustrated passengers resorting to “fisticuffs” over queue-jumping. New recruits train for a month, but it takes another three to six months to learn the job properly, he reckoned — if seasoned colleagues are at hand. At the moment, “it’s the blind leading the blind”, he said, adding: “Once you’re behind, it’s impossible to catch up.”

Other staff working at the UK’s largest airport — all trade union members speaking to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity, for fear they could lose their jobs — had a similar story. Too many people left in redundancy rounds at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, Britons’ demand for travel has surged back, but employers at Heathrow have struggled to rehire in a buoyant labour market where many people have 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 a restroom and think, if anything goes wrong tonight, the people in this room will be able to deal with it,” said one engineer employed by Heathrow for more than 20 years. “Now, I walk into a restroom and think . . .” He broke off and whistled to convey dismay.

Heathrow is the biggest workplace in Europe. It is an ecosystem that runs smoothly when tens of thousands of staff — from cleaners, caterers and cabin crew to baggage handlers, engineers and refuellers — work seamlessly together. But a crisis in recruitment and labour relations is straining the system to breaking point.

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

A line chart of daily flight numbers (seven day moving average) showing that UK flight numbers remain well below pre-pandemic levels

Workers invited by the union Unite 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 been transferred from one outsourcing company to another over a 30-year period. Teams deployed to clean passenger jets were often under-strength, and turnround times were shorter, she added. Hourly pay just £1 above the minimum wage was not enough to stop people quitting.

“Heathrow was something to aim for in the past. Now, it is 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 2 rail line, in data centres or for Amazon.

He added he and many colleagues were about to see a permanent pay cut imposed during the pandemic kick in, while managers’ salaries had been restored following a temporary reduction. 

Heathrow Airport Holdings contested this assertion, saying the pay of managers and frontline staff it employs directly had been “aligned with market rates”. This change was made for managers before the pandemic, and the company gave those facing a pay cut the option of a severance package.

The airport also said its own security teams were back at full strength, and that “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 working at the airport, which hosts more than 400 companies. Currently, there are about 70,000 people working at Heathrow, up from a pandemic low of 50,000, but well under the pre-Covid peak of 95,000. 

The biggest staffing pressures are at ground handling companies, subcontracted by airlines to provide services such as baggage sorting. Heathrow said these companies were about 70 per cent staffed, but serving demand that is between 80 and 85 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s a workers’ market,” said Wayne King, regional co-ordinating officer at Unite, who has seen employers running recruitment days in the hotels strung along the airport’s perimeter, with just a handful of jobseekers turning up. “Before, it would have been packed.”

King said many people had found more stable work in supermarkets or used redundancy pay-offs to retrain as heavy goods vehicle drivers. Among those left in aviation, there was “much more willingness to fight” over pay and conditions because “they’ve seen you’ve got nothing to lose”.

Unite had balloted members at most of the ground handling companies this year, and won a better pay offer after receiving a mandate for industrial action, added King. Unite is working its way “methodically” 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 increase for refuelling workers after threatening to strike over the weekend at the start of the school holidays.

Some airline executives believe it will become easier to recruit as cost of living pressures start to bite. “The only way we will get out of it is when people will realise that they have to go out of their home and back to their jobs and work to earn,” said Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways, who sits on Heathrow’s board as a representative of the Qatari sovereign wealth fund, a shareholder at 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 at the airport © Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

But some in the aviation industry acknowledged they would need to do more to tempt staff back.

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

Wages for new starters had risen about 10 per cent in the past year, he added, saying: “We are going to work hard to make our industry attractive . . . we need to make sure it becomes an interesting place, be it benefits, travel concessions.” 

Pay remains a big sticking point for many people in lower-paid roles.

“Every day you see an announcement from a colleague who’s decided they can’t do it any more,” said a cabin crew member at BA. Many people in her position held second jobs because they could not cover their bills, let alone apply for a mortgage, she added. Basic remuneration for BA’s Heathrow cabin crew starts at £16,000, and staff vie with each other for long-haul flights not just for the travel perks, but because they pay extra allowances.

“Roster night can be quite an emotional time for us,” said the BA cabin crew member, describing a monthly allocation of trips, based on bids, that left some staff working flat out, while others were not sure they had earned enough in variable pay to meet their expenses.

Suitcases piled up at Heathrow Terminal 3’s baggage reclaim area
Uncollected suitcases piled up at Heathrow Terminal 3’s baggage reclaim area last month © Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

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

Pressured working conditions and punishing shift patterns are hardly new in aviation, but workers at Heathrow said they used to be part of a bargain with employers who rewarded loyalty over the long term. Now, some feel they were cut loose during the pandemic — and brought back to deal with a chaotic situation that is not of their making.

“When I started working here, on an apprenticeship, there were 1,500 applicants and 20 people got the job. It was really something to be proud of,” said a third Heathrow engineer. “Now, I see hours of queues, crying little kids . . . I am genuinely sorry for anyone who goes through that . . . I am ashamed to work here now.”

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