The chaos at British and the wider European airports has highlighted an area of airport staffing that has, I feel, been unappreciated for many years. The airlines are taking the flack for cancellations which is affecting 10.000s of travellers and their frustration is completely understandable however in some, and I stress some, cases their frustration is directed at the wrong party … it's not the airline, nor the airport who are at fault but the contracted offices that provide staffing at the airports.
Airports actually employ proportionally a small number of employees and contract out the running of the airport experience to specialist companies – it is these staff that you come into contact with from your arrival at the car park through to the 1st steps on the plane. These staff are working shift hours (04.00 a.m starts through to 01.00 a.m. finishing is common place), regular weekend blocks and bank holidays in addition to having to smile constantly to travellers that are experiencing a stressful time and feel that airport staff are “fair game” for their frustration and then in the passengers mother tongue irrelevant of whether the member of staff may not have any knowledge of that particular vocabulary. The staff that handle this barrage of complaints and stress relief at ungodly hours are normally low paid – security staff receive higher salaries given the training – and have during the pandemic been laid off with a promise of “we will get it touch when things return to normal”. The reasoning for this when there where many government funded support programmes in place is baffling but the reality is that these members of staff have simply found Monday – Friday, 09.00 – 17.00 jobs that pay more than likely equal hourly rates and in some cases more … why wouldn’t they !
To put the above into context below is a brief overview of the airport process (example taken from a German regional airport) and the contracted companies that one comes into contact with :
Car park : contracted
Catering : contracted
Duty free : contracted
Check in : contracted
Security : contracted
Gate : contracted
Within a small regional airport within the pre boarding process the only department that you the passenger will come into contact with and who are actually employed by the airport are the boarding support ... the unknown heroes of the whole process. In small regional airports the boarding support personnel carry out duties such as disabled / elderly passenger assistance, bus driving, winter services (gritting, snow clearance etc), forgotten luggage on planes/gates retrieval, arrival hall security manning, litter picking, riot control (early flights can generate a disproportional amount of arguments between travellers), question and answer sessions with subjects covering the understandable through to the sublime and ending with simply directing customers to the big thing with wings that you might need in order to fly. Boarding support are more multi talented than any other specialist employee you come into contact with at a small regional airport.
Then comes the unseen factors in the issues above and they are 2 fold, namely security and security clearance. The security of the airport is an airport employee role and these members of staff have to additionally handle the entry of the members of staff (contracted and airport employees) through personnel side doors. All airport staff have the same security rules for entering a secure airside part of the airport as travellers and therefore this time consuming process requires security departments to be fully staffed (male and female) at all times otherwise you could literally end up with enough contracted staff but not enough security members to actually let them in. Secondly all airport staff have to be cleared for airport security prior to beginning any employment and this process, including police checks, can take up to 5 weeks after a potential employee has been offered, and accepted a role at an airport.
Unfortunately the problem now is that these contracted staff simply aren’t available at the airports to handle the passenger traffic and subsequently the airlines are having to cancel the flights as not cancelling would simply create such a blockage of passengers.
We are all learning to live with the after effects of the pandemic but airlines and airports are not to blame for a large majority of the chaos currently been seen in the U.K. … an airport job gives security to many people but it’s not so nice that people will sit at home for 18 months with no pay so that they can return to low paid unsociable hours when normality returns.