Air Travel Strikes on the Rise
Sean Goulding Carroll
July 21, 2022.
Navigating a busy airport during the peak summer travel months is stressful at the best of times. But this summer promises an additional layer of difficulty for passengers, as short staffing in the wake of COVID causes airlines and airports to struggle with the rising number of flyers.
Staff are being asked to do more, often on a salary that was frozen or reduced during the pandemic downturn. Rising inflation has added to the tension, with strikes breaking out across the aviation sector, exacerbating passenger travel woes.
Livia Spera, the general secretary of the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) gave her view on the increasing problems.
Spera positioned the pandemic as a crisis that exacerbated what was already a decades-long deterioration of working conditions in the aviation sector, one intensified by the rise of low-cost business models.
“The situation is explosive because the aviation sector in particular already had some structural problems before COVID,” she said. “The philosophy behind the aviation policy in Europe, as with any other transport policy, has been competition liberalisation, lowering the cost, driving the price down to bottom… this is not the solution as the sector is [now] not sustainable, neither economically, nor environmentally, nor socially.”
While airline unions generally agreed on a pay freeze or pay cut during the pandemic given the precipitous fall in traffic, it is now time to reverse these cuts according to Spera, as airlines are once again earning money.
“Ticket prices are going up… Now that the situation is changing, [companies] have to sit again with us at the table to negotiate. Many companies are refusing at the moment, and so strike is the only weapon we have.” Spera said that unions are “very sympathetic” to people who are missing holidays, but that striking is a last resort for workers which is “not taken lightly”.
“There is still this image of the air crew that has a wonderful life and it’s not true anymore. In some carriers they have to buy their own water, they have to buy their own meal, they have to buy their own uniform, they have to pay for their own training,” she said.
The ETF head decried national governments’ decision to provide bailouts to airlines during COVID without tying the cash injections to maintaining jobs, as was done in the United States, arguing that deep job cuts have fuelled the current crisis.
“Airlines, airports, and other companies received a lot of public money. And this wasn’t linked to employment. That was a very big mistake that we warned about from the very beginning,” she said.
To make matters worse, workers fired during the COVID pandemic are no longer returning, as the conditions being offered by the aviation sector are “not attractive”.
“If you can have the same or even a higher salary, not having to work unsocial hours, not having a heavy job that is physically very demanding, then you don’t go back to the [aviation] sector,” she said.
While improving aviation workers’ pay and conditions is the short-term aim, the ETF’s overall goal is to overhaul the EU’s approach to aviation.
“There is a real need to rethink the sector, no longer letting the sector be governed by competition policy but by the general interest,” said Spera.
“It’s the underlying philosophy that needs to change.”