After Flybe collapsed into administration last week, not only have 2,000 people lost their jobs but the UK’s regional airports and the wider civil aviation industry have been plunged into crisis amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Former Flybe workers, Unite members, have called on the government to take immediate action to ensure a future for regional connectivity in the UK.
As they demand action, ex-cabin crew reflected on what not only the country risks losing but what they have already lost personally as well.
Speaking to UniteLive after a meeting at Unite’s headquarters on Thursday (March 12), former Flybe cabin crew member Barry Milligan (pictured below) recounted how he felt when he first heard the news that the airline where he worked for nearly two decades had gone under.
“My initial reaction was shock first and foremost,” he said. “I’ve got bills to pay so from that point of view it’s immediate. For my friends and colleagues it’s just utter devastation. We built something out of Flybe as a community of cabin crew that we don’t want to lose. It’s a very strong community and it extended out to our customers too, who were our friends.”
Ex-Flybe cabin crew member Michelle McKinnon (pictured) also spoke of the working environment at Flybe that felt more like a family than anything else.
‘It never felt like a job’
“Every day was very different,” she said. “It was just a very jovial job. There was no way to describe it. It never actually felt like a job – it felt like a day out that you got paid for. My daughter’s godmother lives in Glasgow and I met her through Flybe. We’re firm, firm friends. Overall, we’re a very close-knit network of crew.”
Former cabin crew member William Stewart (pictured below) agreed, adding that the working conditions were among the best in the industry.
“I’ve worked for four airlines,” he said. “Flybe was the most family-orientated airline. It was a company where we could have the best of both worlds. We could come to work, and instead of doing night stops we could stay at home. We’re part of relatively small crew and we were really close friends with pilots, with the cabin crew – it’s a really tight-knit community across all the networks.”
Now, Flybe cabin crew who’ve lost their jobs face a frighteningly uncertain future as the entire civil aviation industry in the UK reaches a breaking point spurred on by the coronavirus epidemic.
“With the coronavirus and with the perhaps imminent collapse of other airlines this will probably be the end of my career in the industry,” Stewart said.
‘Lost and vulnerable’
Michelle said she felt “lost and vulnerable” after losing a job she’s had for twenty years – since she was nineteen years old.
“I’m based in Belfast and currently I have no opportunities in aviation,” she said. “We were always a very niche market and Flybe was one of the biggest employers. I don’t know what’s next for me. Obviously with what’s going on in the industry now I don’t know if there will be a viable option for me in aviation.”
Worried about the more immediate future, she said getting paid two weeks before losing her job means she only has another week before the faces the prospect of struggling to make ends meet.
“I’m beginning to get very anxious about the 20th [when we usually get paid and] no wages come in,” she said.
Though the former cabin crew are forced to come to terms with the collapse of Europe’s largest regional airline and in the process the loss of their immediate jobs, they haven’t thrown in the towel yet.
As advocates for their vocation and for the customers they so loyally served, they’re now calling for the government to take measures to ensure regional connectivity throughout the UK is protected.
‘You need to realise how devastating this is’
Barry spoke of his anger at the government after hearing the news for the first time – in media reports – that Flybe had gone bust.
“I lived in hope that Flybe would be saved,” he said, visibly emotional. “In fact I believed it would be saved based on the promises of [former business secretary] Andrea Leadsom and [transport secretary] Grant Shapps who gave assurances from the government that Flybe was vital; that it was important to the regions and it was part of the Tory manifesto to connect to regions.
“I believed that we were so important to the regions that we just couldn’t fail.”
He called on the government to realise the importance of keeping regions connected.
“It’s vital for the UK economy,” he said. “You only have to look at large airports — not even the small ones which are now totally wiped out with no flying. Even in large airports like Manchester and Glasgow, 50 per cent of the flights are down. You need to realise how devastating this is.”
Michelle agreed and called for other airlines who take on Flybe’s routes to ensure they establish proper bases in airports like Belfast’s to secure their future.
“We must retain connectivity,” she said. “Other airlines that are still flying are capitalising on our demise and the fares have become extortionate — the general public will not be able to sustain those prices,” she said. “We request a base to be opened at Belfast Airport not only to create jobs for ourselves but to secure the airport. We [at Flybe] were 80 per cent of Belfast Airport’s business and that airport requires us to be there for our long term future.”
Preserve jobs call
Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland said the union would continue to petition the government to step in and do the right thing — and not let the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic decimate the future of regional airports and airlines.
“Last week 2,000 workers at Flybe lost their jobs when the airline collapsed,” she said earlier this week. “Unite is deeply concerned that without recognition of the need for immediate government support, thousands more jobs are at risk.
“The government and the chancellor in particular must use all levers available to provide immediate financial assistance to support the future of the industry.
“Airlines have already initiated talks with unions to find ways to deal with the calamitous collapse in bookings, which could lead to workers not being paid or losing their jobs.
“The government had earmarked a £100 million to support Flybe,” she added. “It should be utilised to encourage new carriers to take on those routes in order to preserve regional connectivity and keep regional airports open.
“A delay in providing support to the industry is not an option, if jobs and services are to be preserved then action must be taken immediately.”