One of Britain’s largest unions has warned that it is becoming “increasingly concerned” about the safety of airline passengers because workers are exhausted and suffering from extreme tiredness or fatigue after months of dealing with chronic staff shortages.
“The aviation sector is being held together by the sticking plaster of workers undertaking excessive amounts of overtime,” warned Unite general secretary Sharon Graham on Friday.
The union has discovered some workers in safety-critical roles are working between 80 and 90 hours a week to keep the airline industry moving. There is a deep-seated fear that the industry’s reliance on overtime to cover staffing shortages poses a safety issue for passengers and workers.
The union claims cabin crew are occasionally being ordered to work beyond mandatory ‘flight time limitations’ that are meant to be enforced to prevent aircrew from becoming fatigued. Studies have found that fatigue is one of the biggest causes of preventable human factor accidents in the aviation industry.
Some cabin crew are also being made to work without sufficient rest and are being denied breaks that they are entitled to receive.
In the majority of cases, employees are working around 20 hours of overtime per week with some ground handling agents paying workers £320 per day to pick up extra shifts.
“Sadly further disruption across the aviation sector is inevitable this summer,” commented Unite’s national officer for the aviation sector, Oliver Richardson. “Too many workers were cut during the pandemic and the reductions to pay and conditions for those that remained made the industry unattractive to new starters.”
On Wednesday, Heathrow airport slammed airlines for refusing to offer ‘market rate’ pay for ground handling roles which, in turn, was exasperating the staffing crisis. The airport claimed baggage handlers cut during the pandemic were able to earn more as delivery drivers from companies like Amazon and didn’t want to return to the sector.
Despite desperate recruitment campaigns, airlines have been unable to increase the net level of ground handling staff since January. In some parts of the industry, staff turnover has hit 27 per cent claims Unite.
British Airways has admitted that it is struggling to recruit ground staff, although the airline says there are currently plenty of people who are signing up to become cabin crew. The problem, however, is getting these new recruit’s security vetted and trained.
Disruption is expected to last for the next few months at the very least and some parts of the industry could be suffering staffing woes for much longer.
“This is simply not sustainable,” warned Graham. “The sector can’t recruit the workers it needs, many existing staff are leaving and those who remain are becoming exhausted and ill due to the long hours and stress they experience.”
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.