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UK airlines and airports scramble to hire staff as travel takes off again

By Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent
BA cabin crew walk towards arrivals
British Airways axed as many as 10,000 workers during the pandemic, now it is struggling to recruit replacements. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Are you unfazed by heights, able to swim, not visibly tattooed, either taller than 5 ft 2in or possessed of extraordinarily long arms, and able to survive on £16k basic a year? Then there is a pretty good chance an airline needs you.

Cabin crew are just a few of the roles the aviation sector has been desperately trying to fill after the bounceback from Covid. Employees were axed en masse as the pandemic hit and flights were grounded, with British Airways alone shedding 10,000 people.

Now those aviation businesses that cut to the bone have been unable to recruit fast enough after the government suddenly lifted all travel restrictions in March, fuelling a surge in bookings.

At the more glamorous end of aviation, there is still no shortage of applicants: BA is holding wings ceremonies, where newly qualified cabin crew are given their silver winged badges, almost daily.

Natasha Dicks, 21, of Swindon, is one of those who made it through, working her first flight from Heathrow to Edinburgh earlier this month. She first applied in 2019, but was put on hold when Covid arrived, and went to work in the hotel business instead. This time, BA called her.

Five-and-a-half weeks of training included simulating emergency evacuations – “People were shouting, who are you, what are you? I didn’t have time to put on my yellow tabard and they thought I was a pretend passenger” – before Dicks and her cohort of 12 trainees got their wings, in front of friends and family, in BA’s museum at its Waterside HQ at Heathrow.

For her, the long wait was worth it: “It’s my dream job – I’ve always wanted to do this.” But other parts of aviation are beginning to realise that loyal staff are hard to come by – particularly in the more thankless tasks such as airport security.

New BA cabin crew staff member Natasha Dicks.
New BA cabin crew staff member Natasha Dicks. Photograph: British Airways

Staff shortages that led to chaotic scenes in departure lounges at Easter continue to play out. Last week, Manchester airport was still grappling with 90-minute security queues, while Birmingham International forced passengers to wait outside its terminals, so they could tell which queue was which. The Midlands airport laid off almost half its staff during the pandemic.

Both are in the midst of training up new security officers – and like virtually all airlines and airports, have been racing to recruit. However, they have emerged into a much tighter labour market – and having paid staff to leave, many businesses are now forced to offer incentives to get them back.

BA is offering sign-on bonuses of £1,000 for “below wing” jobs, in ground-handling roles, while ground handlers at Gatwick, employed by firms such as DHL, Menzies and Swissport, have secured 10% pay rises.

Sharon Graham, general secretary of the Unite union, which negotiated the deal, said the union had “consistently warned aviation employers that unless they address the sector’s poor pay and conditions, they will struggle to recruit and retain the workers they need”. Other sectors, such as logistics, retail and warehousing, have also struggled to find staff, having also lured former aviation workers with better pay and more sociable hours during the pandemic.

Security checks have delayed and complicated recruitment. Those working in sensitive roles at airports require employment history dating back five years – no longer straightforward when many have been driven into gig economy roles, or worked for firms who may have gone bust in lockdown. Many applicants – either with better offers, or too cash-strapped to wait – have gone elsewhere before the process is completed.

Manchester airport says more than 500 people are currently going through background checks and security training, although only 200 new starters were expected to join this month.

Brexit is also a factor: cabin crew roles at Luton were once advertised, and directly recruited from, places such as Madrid. Now the likes of easyJet, fishing in a smaller pool for UK jobs, are ever more sensitive to the poaching of qualified crew, and are offering a retention bonus to those who see out the summer.

While airlines are increasing staff numbers in anticipation of customers, airports are less sure: Heathrow says the current rush is a blip and is reluctant to expand too fast, despite saying it is taking on 1,000 more staff.

Heathrow argues that customers are still using credit notes or vouchers from cancelled trips, with the pent-up demand from two years of travel fuelling a temporary boom. That unlikely to last it says, as risks to flight demand include a UK recession, the full effect of rising fuel prices and the cost of living squeeze to come, and with Covid far from eradicated.

The stance has provoked a furious row with airlines such as Virgin Atlantic and BA, which accuse it of reducing their space to operate while upping the landing charges they pay, on the back of a gloomy prognosis.

Nonetheless, without the staff – either their own or the airports – airlines are having to clip their owns wings. EasyJet took the extraordinary step of physically detaching seats from its aircraft to allow them to fly with fewer crew under UK regulations – and British Airways has cancelled 10% of flights until the end of October. Long-serving employees who were jettisoned in the bad times may struggle to sympathise.

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Dive Deeper:
All the British Airways flights cancelled today from UK airports OLD FRI
Airlines have blamed continuing travel disruption on Covid-related staff shortages
All the British Airways flights cancelled today from UK airports OLD THU
Airlines have blamed continuing travel disruption on Covid-related staff shortages
Birmingham Airport passengers fury at two-hour wait to pick up their luggage
Travellers at Birmingham Airport have taken to Twitter to vent their frustrations after apparently being told they'll have to wait…
Leeds Bradford Airport update for all passengers as chaotic queues continue
One simple check could avoid huge queues and disappointment
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Rules for taking own food on planes for Tui, Easyjet, Ryanair, Jet2 and British Airways flights
Each airline has its own rules on taking your own food onto the plane
Tickets, passport … picnic? Why you may have to rustle up your own in-flight meal
Staff shortages mean many short-haul and even some long-haul flights could take off without any catering. Is it time to…
Get all your news in one place