Airlines ‘taking advantage’ of coronavirus crisis to offload costly staff, say unions

Simon Calder
Sunset trip: British Airways and its rival, Virgin Atlantic, are grounding Boeing 747 aircraft: Matt Purton

Unions representing aviation staff have accused airlines of “taking advantage” of the coronavirus pandemic to get rid of more expensive staff.

Diana Holland, assistant general secretary for transport for the Unite union, told the Transport Select Committee that British Airways was using the crisis to make redundant “legacy” staff who enjoy the best terms and conditions.

“This is taking advantage of a very difficult situation to push through something that is totally unacceptable,” she said.

Unite represents most BA cabin crew. Ms Holland said that 93 per cent of members were feeling anxious, and 61 per cent reported depression.

One member of cabin crew has been sectioned, and two others had had heart attacks.

“The impact is absolutely devastating,” she said.

A spokesperson for British Airways said: “We are acting now to protect as many jobs possible. The airline industry is facing the deepest structural change in its history, as well as facing a severely weakened global economy.

“We are committed to consulting openly with our unions and our people as we prepare for a new future.”

Brian Strutton, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa), told the committee: “Airlines are exaggerating the problem.

“We’re in a trough at the moment. We will be coming out of it in the next two-and-a-half years, and airlines are egging the pudding too much to take advantage of the crisis, to make changes and downsize their workforce.

“This is an opportunistic land-grab by some of these airlines exploiting this situation.

“There should be a moratorium on job losses.

“We need to work out how the whole of aviation is going to recover.”

He also said that the government was making the situation worse because of the plan for quarantine for arrivals to the UK from June.

Jason Holt, chief executive of the ground-handling company Swissport UK, told the committee that the aviation industry was desperate: “This is a fight for survival. We are hand to mouth and we are running out of cash.

“At the moment there is not any coherence, from Treasury or No 10, with regard to the aviation sector.

“We don’t need bail-outs. We need cash-flow assistance.”

Mr Holt said “If the government remains asleep at the wheel, and our competitors in other parts of Europe – France, Germany and elsewhere – will shoot past us as we head towards a car crash.

“If we go bust, it will take many, many years for the aviation sector – which is the pride of the European skies – to get back on its feet.”

Kelly Tolhurst, the aviation minister, said: “We are in unprecedented times. We are working internationally with our neighbours who are facing some of the same challenges that we are.

“We will work hard to make sure we are clear about how we will work with the industry in order get that recovery that is required.

“We haven’t been asleep at the wheel.”

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