‘Come fly with me’?

UK aviation industry on the tarmac through high octane mix of Covid, lack of govt support and some very bad bosses

Reading time: 6 min

At the beginning of this year, no one could have foretold how the aviation industry in the UK – a huge contributor to the economy, supporting nearly 1m jobs – would have so suddenly been brought to its knees.

No other industry has been hit as hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. In March, virtually all flights were grounded as non-essential travel was banned. In an island nation where 80 per cent of visitors fly in to the UK by air, restrictions to stop the transmission of the virus had dealt a body blow to the sector, with tens of thousands of jobs lost, and many more furloughed. Hundreds of thousands of jobs remain at risk after months of a massive and sustained downturn in air traffic.

The aviation sector is so vital to the UK economy because its tentacles reach far and wide – it encompasses airlines, aerospace supply chains, airports and the wider communities these airports and supply chains support.

Crawley, where Gatwick Airport is based, perfectly exemplifies what can happen to our communities so reliant on the aviation sector.

In September, Unite found that already over 6,000 workers based at Gatwick, employed directly by the airport, by airlines, or in the various supply chains have lost their jobs or at risk of redundancy since the beginning of the pandemic.

This grim figure only includes areas where Unite is organised and does not include the retail, hotel or hospitality sectors which have also witnessed massive job losses.

The Centre for Cities found that Crawley alone has been hit by a massive 5.1 per cent increase in unemployment since March – ranking third highest of all towns and cities in the UK. Only Luton and Slough, towns which are also reliant on airports, fared worse.

Unite understood early on the devastation that the pandemic would unleash on entire communities centred on aviation. This is why as soon as the pandemic began in March, Unite called on the government to provide urgent support of the entire sector.

“If you do not take urgent action to support the aviation industry in the UK, there is absolute certainty that tens of thousands of jobs will be put at risk, and the industry will be unable to resume effectively once this health crisis has passed,” warned Unite general secretary Len McCluskey in a letter to PM Boris Johnson.

Nine months later, the sector is still waiting, crying out for the support it needs to survive. In June, new research showed that 70,000 jobs were almost certainly going to be lost in the sector without government support, with up to 124,000 jobs at risk.

The research, written jointly by the New Economics Foundation, the TUC and Unite and other aviation unions, described this scale of job losses as equal to the collapse of Britain’s coal industry in 1980-81.

Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland said the UK government is virtually alone among the developed nations not to throw its aviation sector a meaningful lifeline.

“Governments in Europe and globally have provided financial support for their aviation sectors because they recognise it is vital to an economy, and the UK government needs to do the same without further delay,” she said.

In this time of unprecedented crisis, some employers have stepped up to the plate to do right by their workforce, while others have turned their backs on loyal staff  – including in the aviation sector.

British Airways – among the worst offenders, with its threat to cuts tens of thousands of jobs and fire and rehire the rest of its workforce on worse terms and conditions – was by no means the only one in the industry.

Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL), owners of one of the biggest airports in the world, has boasted that it has cash reserves to survive for 15 months even if a single plane doesn’t land at the airport. Despite this, the airport is trying to force workers, through fire and rehire contracts, to accept permanent pay cuts of up to £8,000 per year – a quarter of their salary.

As we go to press, Heathrow workers, are fighting back with multiple strikes throughout December.

Such shameful tactics – replicated in many instances across aviation – is why Unite is calling for any government support package for the sector to come with strict strings attached, so that aviation bosses don’t take advantage, leaving workers to bear the burden of the crisis.

But Unite struck a landmark agreement with Ryanair in July, showing that a constructive approach, even in times of deep crisis, is possible.

The budget airline had initially planned on slashing 3,000 jobs, but after talks with Unite, an agreement was reached so that not a single job was lost.

Workers accepted temporary cuts in pay, with the lowest paid taking the smallest pay cut, while Ryanair agreed that the pay cuts would be immediately reversed and planned pay rises phased in once business returns to pre-pandemic levels.

“Unite has always maintained that temporary problems require temporary solutions,” said Unite national officer Oliver Richardson. “Ryanair’s management have shown that it is possible to reach an agreement on exactly that basis.”

Unite continues to press the government to provide strategic support for the aviation sector.

As Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland remarked, aviation is too vital a sector to allow it to fail.

“Aviation is central to our economy and in linking people together, connecting regions and providing jobs.

“Unite has published a clear blueprint which details a realistic manner in which the government can support the aviation sector, preserve jobs and boost regional connectivity. It is absolutely critical that the government adopts these principles and acts decisively and swiftly.”

 By Hajera Blagg

This feature first appeared in Unite Works Winter 2020/21. For members to receive a digital copy contact your regional office and ask the membership team to put you on the digimag email subscription list

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