UK airports move to protect their operations

Published 19/03/20

The UK’s airport operators have moved quickly to protect their operations following a global slump in air traffic caused by the coronavirus crisis.

Following the government’s decision to advise against all non-essential overseas travel on Tuesday, Gatwick was the first to take decisive action, shutting its runways to night-time flights and closing two of its six piers because of a decrease in passenger numbers.

In addition, 200 staff employed on fixed-term contracts and contractors have been laid off.

London’s second airport is now in consultation with other staff to explore potential cost-saving measures such as offering unpaid leave or temporary salary reductions.

Chief Executive Stewart Wingate and his executive team have agreed a 20% salary cut and are waiving any bonuses due for the current financial year.

“Gatwick is a resilient business, but the world has changed dramatically in recent weeks and we have been forced to take rapid, decisive action to ensure that the airport is in a strong position to recover from a significant fall in passenger numbers,” explained Wingate.

“Significantly reduced passenger numbers are likely to be sustained, at least in the short to medium term, and I need to prepare people for the news that other serious measures are likely.”

Manchester Airports Group (MAG), which owns and operates three UK airports – Manchester, East Midlands and London Stansted ¬– is taking similar action.

Bosses are currently consulting with unions in the aim of introducing temporary lay-offs and pay cuts across its workforce, along with reducing working hours, freezing recruitment and asking staff to take enforced annual leave.

“Charlie Cornish, Chief Executive Officer of MAG, said: “The COVID-19 outbreak has led to a rapid and unprecedented reduction in demand for air travel in and out of the UK, and MAG airports are seeing much lower passenger numbers as a result.

“We expect demand to return as the COVID-19 peak passes, but this temporary and dramatic downturn requires us to act now to protect our position at this critical time.

“These are difficult decisions for MAG and they have not been taken lightly. We recognise the impact they will have on our people and we will be consulting with our colleagues.

“Our aim will always be to protect jobs wherever possible, and we need to take these steps now to ensure the company’s future.”

Trade body the Airport Operators Association (AOA) has urged ministers to offer more financial support to airports in the country amid dwindling passenger numbers, warning that many could close down ‘within weeks’ without help.

Top of the list is access to emergency funding – something Chancellor Rishi Sunak has said would be made available – the suspension of Air Passenger Duty and the deferral of VAT payments.

AOA chief executive Karen Dee said: “"The Government must step in to see airports across the four home nations through the current crisis, and make an unequivocal commitment to doing whatever it takes to sustain the UK aviation industry.

"For the sake of the UK economy it is essential for the UK Government to catch up to its peers across the continent and provide support to the sector and the wider economy through financing, guarantees, grants and tax relief."

Other airports around the country say they may have to take cost-cutting steps. Edinburgh Airport has already announced 100 jobs are “at risk” among its 750 staff, with decisions likely to be taken at the end of May, while AGS Airports, which runs Glasgow and Aberdeen said it would “monitor the situation and respond accordingly”.

Heathrow, the UK’s largest airport, has taken a number of measures to help airlines and suppliers through the crisis, and says job losses are not on the cards as yet.

Parking fees at the airport are being waived for grounded aircraft and the airport is promising to pay all bills within 30 days to help the cashflow of small businesses.