Airport ground handling companies, which are essential to the smooth running of air travel, are rushing to fill thousands of jobs that have been cut during the pandemic as they seek to ease widespread disruption.
Companies like Swissport, John Menzies and Dnata are contracted by airlines to provide vital services ranging from check-in to baggage handling.
Global airlines have called for an urgent recruitment drive, after disruptions at airlines and airports in the UK, EU and US were blamed on staff shortages in the industry .
Over the past week, passengers have reported that a pilot left the cockpit to help load luggage onto the plane, cabin crew were sorting luggage due to a staff shortage at the floor and that the crew had been seen climbing through the curtains of the baggage carousel to clear their baggage.
Swissport, which operates at 285 airports worldwide, said it plans to hire 30,000 people this summer and has launched social media campaigns in the UK and US.
The company lost 20,000 of its 65,000 workers as part of cost cuts during the pandemic.
Dnata, which is owned by the Emirates Group, said it was “actively hiring”, while John Menzies and Esken were also looking for ground handling staff, according to their websites. “We’re hiring like crazy,” said one executive.
The International Air Transport Association said there was a “serious shortage of ground service providers” after thousands left the industry during the pandemic.
“The shortages we are experiencing today are a symptom of the longer-term challenges in achieving a stable talent base in ground handling,” said Nick Careen, IATA’s director who oversees operations, safety and security.
According to a study by consultancy Oxford Economics, compared to pre-Covid levels, there were 2.3 million fewer jobs in the aviation industry in September 2021.
These figures include a 29% drop in contract staff at airports, such as ground handlers, where 1.7 million jobs were lost.
Airline chiefs last week called on the UK to ease post-Brexit immigration rules and grant EU aviation workers special visas to help ease the disruption. ‘We have staff that we would just like to transfer to the UK but we are not allowed to,’ said one executive.
The UK government has indicated it will not introduce a visa waiver for aviation workers and argued that the disruption is a global problem that cannot be solved by immigration.
A former senior executive at a ground handling company says the airline industry’s business model is making it harder to rehire people, with airlines and airports pressing ground handling providers to cut costs, especially during the pandemic.
This leaves little room for businesses – where labor typically accounts for up to 75% of their costs – to raise wages or improve terms and conditions to attract new employees.
“This is a structural problem, we are at the bottom of the food chain and will be victims of continued cost pressure on airlines to reduce prices,” the person said.
Several airport and airline executives said they also thought it was difficult to attract new workers to an industry known for its unsocial hours and what can be hard physical work.
UK-listed John Menzies recorded 56% staff turnover in 2021, according to its annual report, compared to 65% and 58% in the previous two years.
Careen said the industry needed to work together to attract staff. “An industry-wide approach to laying the foundation for more effective talent recruitment, onboarding and retention will bring big efficiency benefits for everyone involved,” said he declared.