Low pay ‘at root’ of UK flight disruption and fares ‘must rise’

UK flight delays and cancellations are due to post-pandemic labour shortages exacerbated by poor wages.

That is according to senior figures at ground handler Menzies Aviation and Heathrow airport who blamed a “race to the bottom” on airport service contracts by airlines for difficulties recruiting security staff and baggage handlers.

Menzies Aviation head of corporate affairs John Geddes and Heathrow chief of staff Nigel Milton said fares would have to rise to address the problem.

Milton warned the disruption to flights could run through to next summer, saying: “We could face a lot of problems in the next 12 months.”

The pair were addressing a UK Trade and Business Commission hearing today into ‘The Brexit challenges facing travel’ which sought to examine the role of Britain’s exit from the EU in the disruption.

The commission was set up in 2021 by a cross-party group of MPs and business leaders opposed to Brexit.

Abta director of public affairs Luke Petherbridge attempted to put the disruption in context, telling the commission: “Cancellations have been running at 3%-4% of flights. The majority of people are getting away.”

He argued the disruption “is primarily due to a shortage of workers.

“We were first into the crisis and last out. We had six months from September 2021 when we had no salary support and restrictions remained and we lost nearly half the staff in the industry.

“Then the industry only had a few days’ notice of reopening, and roles at airports are security sensitive so staff had to be vetted.”

Consumer travel journalist Simon Calder agreed: “Covid crushed the travel industry and made the restart very difficult.”

But Calder also insisted: “The Brexit impact has been absolutely massive. So much of the industry was staffed by EU citizens who went home.”

Geddes rejected that, saying: “Brexit is not the root cause. We operate all over the world and have big issues in Amsterdam, in the US and Canada. It’s all to do with pricing.

“The UK has a largely outsourced [airport] model. We keep the wheels turning at airports. The issue is we account for 7% to 8% of the cost of a flight but we’re responsible for 70% to 80% of what can go wrong with a flight.

“Working in aviation used to be a good job, but the world has changed. There are alternative jobs driving Amazon or Tesco deliveries.

“We ask people to start at 5am to move bags or cargo on to aircraft. It has to be attractive pay, but we’re close to minimum pay rates.”

Milton agreed: “The under-the-radar roles in the industry are key to the whole process. If you’ve not got someone to load or fuel an aircraft, it doesn’t matter how many pilots you have.

“[But] these roles are underpaid. We pay the London living wage at Heathrow and encourage third-party providers to do the same. But there is push back, with people saying, ‘This will push up costs.’

“It has been a race to the bottom, based on cost and not on service.

“We need to pay everyone in aviation a decent wage. The cost to the consumer may go up, but the industry needs to accept that.”

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