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Unions seize post-COVID opportunity to pressure airports, airlines – POLITICO

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Aviation unions have been handed a powerful weapon – the desire of millions of people to have a normal holiday after years of COVID disruptions – and they are not afraid to pull the trigger.

The pandemic prompted airlines and airports to cut staff – from pilots to baggage handlers to security checkpoints – but now travel is recovering much faster than expected. This is causing chaos across Europe as people wait hours to check in while airlines cancel flights.

It also puts transport unions in an unusually strong position, and they hope to reverse not only the pay cuts caused by the pandemic, but also the decade-long churn away from cost-cutting airlines, which has even seen cabin crew on some airlines forced to pay for bottled water .

The latest dropout is the pilots’ union at SAS, which went on strike on Monday, prompting Anko van der Werff, the Scandinavian airline’s boss, to cancel about half of the airline’s flights in what he called a “reckless act.” behavior” of the pilots’ unions and a shockingly poor understanding of the critical situation in which SAS finds itself.”

Despite these complaints, unions feel that power has shifted their way for the first time in many years.

“Over the past 20 years, the sector has not valued its employees in terms of training, good working conditions, collective bargaining and social dialogue,” said Livia Spera, Secretary General of the European Transport Workers’ Federation. “It was the entire aviation sector based on an unsustainable model that has proven unsustainable. So it is no surprise to us what happened.”

Effects of COVID

The airline sector is scrambling to increase staff, but low wages for many jobs and difficult conditions make recruiting difficult, and new hires have to wait weeks for security clearance. British airlines are also facing the fallout from Brexit, making hiring EU citizens more difficult.

The extent of the staff shortage is immense.

London Heathrow says it needs to hire 12,000 workers. Brussels Zaventem announced a recruitment campaign to hire 1,000 additional employees. The Frankfurt airport operator is looking for 1,000 employees and says the airport has “extreme traffic peaks”.

Lufthansa has announced that it will cancel around 1,000 flights in July due to staff shortages. EasyJet is removing seats from its planes so it can fly with a reduced cabin crew of three instead of four per plane this summer.

Unions say the only way to get more staff is to improve pay and working conditions.

“There is a shortage everywhere,” said Livia. “So, if I’m a manual worker, why should I work at an airport where I have a two-year part-time contract, with unsocial hours, not so good working conditions and a very low salary? If I work in a supermarket it might be the same pay but more social hours.”

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary dismissed the notion that the airline industry was no longer an attractive career choice.

“I think airlines get a lot of blame for supply chain bottlenecks. The grim experience at airports at the moment is the shortage of personnel in airport security and handling. These pinch points are eliminated. Mainly in Europe people are being recruited,” he told POLITICO last month.

Many of the problems stem from measures taken to weather the collapse in flying during the pandemic.

SAS fired about 500 pilots; The union says the airline is circumventing its promise to reinstate them by creating a new corporate structure.

Many airlines and airports that have retained staff during the COVID period have done so by promising not to lay them off in exchange for lower wages. Now that travel is returning to normal, unions want these cuts reversed.

British Airways workers at Heathrow last week voted to strike over the company’s failure to reintroduce the 10 per cent pay cut imposed during COVID.

Ryanair employees hold flyers reading ‘Support our strike’ as they protest at Terminal 2 of Barcelona’s El Prat Airport on July 1, 2022 | Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images

But it’s not just COVID. Unions also want wage increases to keep up with rapidly rising inflation.

A German union representing Lufthansa ground staff wants an extra €350 a month over 12 months to cushion the impact of rising inflation.

The airline chiefs apologized to staff and customers for the travel chaos and said they had “made mistakes” in cutting costs to deal with pandemic-related losses.

“The situation will hardly improve in the short term,” said a letter from the management. The increase in personnel will “only have the desired stabilizing effect until winter”.

All of this has resulted in passengers facing long queues and cancellations. Some airports recommend travelers to show up three hours before their flight departure, and Amsterdam Schiphol advises them to bring water and dress comfortably for the long lines.

money worries

But while the airline industry says the rapid recovery in travel and the resulting disruptions come as a surprise, unions have warned since the pandemic began that the downsizing was a mistake.

“Without ongoing payroll support, the industry risks being left without experienced and skilled workers who may be looking for opportunities in other sectors that are recovering faster,” the European Transport Workers’ Federation said a year ago.

Unions say the EU or national governments could have encouraged airlines to hold on to staff by making the multi-billion dollar bailout packages conditional.

They point to the US COVID funding program, the CARES Act, which contained provisions that said cash must be used solely to pay staff.

But such calls in Europe have been largely ignored, and airline jobs have been slashed while state money kept airlines running.

Aviation has survived COVID, but many airlines like SAS are battered and financially vulnerable, making it difficult to meet union demands.

“Companies like Ryanair and easyJet and even IAG want to hire more staff to get back to where they were, but their financial position isn’t always conducive to granting those raises immediately,” said Gregor Gall, professor of industrial policy that of the University of Glasgow. “Most employers will always invoke poverty whenever they can. But in this situation I find it relatively clear that they have suffered financial losses.”

Despite these financial concerns, unions believe now is the time to strike.

“Industrial action in aviation has a strength that is unmatched anywhere else,” Gall said. “The services that are then not available will not be replaced. If you want to fly from London to Berlin, you can get there by other means, but you certainly won’t do it on the same day.”

Paris Charles de Gaulle workers plan to exit the airport’s main international hub from Friday to Sunday and are calling for an across-the-board wage increase of 300 euros a month for all employees. A similar strike last week saw 10 percent of flights canceled.

There have already been some victories.

The Unite union pushed through for an 18 per cent pay rise for cabin crew working for SAS at Heathrow, with the union warning British Airways to “take note”.

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol also said it would pay 15,000 cleaners, baggage handlers and security guards an additional €5.25 an hour after a strike.

Adding to the firepower of unions, airlines could face huge additional costs if they fail to act to put out the fires of job dissatisfaction. A 2021 EU Court of Justice ruling says passengers with delayed or canceled flights due to strikes will be liable for compensation.

“It’s quite important for the unions because it gives them extra leverage to force the airlines to agree to their demands or to negotiate with them,” said Pieter Pecinovsky, a lawyer specializing in labor law. “Theoretically, it could be very expensive. They must compensate all their travelers.”

Laurence Gehrke contributed reporting.

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