One of the hardest task of running any business, in any field, is adapting to changing circumstances. In the ordinary course of events, the aim, and the hope, is that whatever the enterprise, things remain stable and secure in the first instance, then growth brings greater size and with it, employment. The Covid-19 outbreak around the world has however, turned this principle on its head and it has been especially noticeable in the airline industry.
But it is not only airlines that have suffered, with the result that they have all had to re-examine the size of their operations and with that, the number of people employed. Airports too have to do the same and like all airports, London Heathrow has had to do some soul-searching.
Commenting on the ongoing efforts to protect jobs at the airport, a Heathrow spokesperson said:
'We are in talks with our unions about the impact of COVID-19 on our business. These talks are in the early stages and we will continue to explore options – no decisions have been made. Our main priority is to protect jobs and we have put forward an initial proposal that we believe is fair, gives colleagues choice and reflects the severity of the situation we all face. Despite the trade unions recognising the need for change, they are not supportive of our initial proposal.
We believe the initial proposals put forward by the trade unions do not reflect the severity of the situation and ultimately will limit our ability to protect jobs. Our business has been hit hard by the pandemic stripping away 97 per cent of normal demand. And, while we have acted quickly to protect our business and made significant progress with cost cutting, we now need to go further. Our forecasts show that we’ll have nearly 64 per cent fewer passengers in 2020 alone and 2019 levels are not expected to return until after 2022. This means we must adapt to the new passenger numbers and change the way we work to become more flexible, agile and competitive so we are fit for the future.
We are doing everything we can to engage with our unions and come to a constructive solution that avoids needing to use S188.
On the back of feedback from colleagues, we have already launched a voluntary severance scheme and we are topping up furloughed salaries and ensuring no colleague falls below the London Living Wage threshold. We will continue to talk to our trade unions and are committed to providing colleagues with as much support and information as possible as we move to become more efficient, while running a safe and secure airport.'
And it is not just Heathrow itself. Airport ground handling firm Swissport is planning to axe 4,556 jobs in the UK and Ireland - half its workforce - due to the impact of the coronavirus. Staff were being informed of the cuts on Wednesday morning. Swissport's chief executive for western Europe, Jason Holt, said it had been "hit hard" by COVID-19 with revenues "almost completely lost".
Mr Holt said: "The unfortunate fact is that there simply aren't enough aircraft flying for our business to continue running as it did before the COVID-19 outbreak, and there won't be again for some time to come. We must adapt to this new reality." He pointed to industry forecasts suggesting traffic may not recover to 2019 levels until as late as 2024.
One possible advantage London may have is that it remains a very attractive place to visit and to do business in. The historic aspects to the UK capital aren't going anywhere, even though, in the short-term, the numbers have fallen dramatically (as they have right around the world) and the general consensus of opinion is that things won't pick up so amazingly fast that nobody needs to lose their job.
The real question is, for those that do face redundancy, for how long will a period of unemployment last? Governments, including that of the UK, will have to accept that the days when everybody could have a job for life are long gone. It means welfare payments must be adjusted in an upwards direction to avoid people being forced into grinding poverty and less draconian conditions applied to those benefits. It must also accept - as must trade unions - that a fanciful notion of everybody retraining for other jobs is just that; a fanciful notion. Every business, in every sphere of life and across the globe, faces the same problem. The numbers needed to run anything will not be what they were - and will not be for some time yet.
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