The UK Government continues to drag its heels on safer traveler testing measures to replace unenforced 14 day quarantines, and as a result, circumstances in UK aviation are even more dire than the broader industry, which is already grasping at straws.
And now, things might get worse, as brutal labor disputes between Heathrow workers and the private company which operates the airport turn public.
As of November 16th, the union representing Heathrow workers from firefighters to terminal staff plan to stage at least three separate walkouts, which could potentially result in 4 days of complete airport shutdowns across a variety of the busiest travel days of the year.
The argument is simple: Heathrow staff via union Unite say that Heathrow Holdings Limited, the company which runs the airport, is using the crisis to reduce wages and quality of life for workers far beyond needed measures, despite holding enough cash reserves for the airport to survive another 15 months, without a plane landing or taking off.
If ground is not made, Heathrow’s Unite Union plan four days of walkouts, the first coming on December 1st, just before lockdown ends across England, the second on December 14th, and if all else fails, a brutal 48 hour walkout on December 17th and 18th, just as holiday arrivals and departures reach a fever pitch.
The discussions parallel legal battles earlier in the year between British Airways and its unions, as workers claimed the airline was putting profits above its people, choosing to reduce pay for essential staff well beyond covid-19 related needs.
As noted by airline blog Paddle Your Own Kanoo, Heathrow firefighters alone could bring the airport to a full ground stop, with no planes allowed to operate if appropriate safety staff are not on hand.
Heathrow Airport Holdings, which is mostly owned by the Qatari Investment Authority, and Ferrovial S.A. of Spain, bitterly contest the condemning allegations from workers unions, and matched fire with fire, in statements responding to the threat.
“It’s very disappointing that Unite has decided to take strike action during the worst crisis to hit the aviation sector. We will now activate extensive contingency plans which will keep the airport open and operating safely throughout this period.”Heathrow Airport
So will they actually strike? It’s anyone’s guess. They have before, and they’ve reached agreements beforehand, too. Heathrow employs roughly 76,000 people in the UK via jobs in and around the airport. It’s not entirely clear if contingency staff numbers could put up the personnel required to keep operations running.
The scrappy circumstances facing the airline industry, and broader travel industry at large, are highlighting key issues between privately run firms and those which receive state support, or act at the behest of the state.
Airlines all across Europe, USA, Asia and beyond have received multi billion Euro bailout packages from government, while the UK has passed on opportunities to “bail out” the aviation and travel sectors at all. Private companies have every legal right to put their profits and balance sheets before the needs of their people, but doing so creates foreseeable labor issues which may last long after the pandemic is over.