After 18 long months, international travel is about to be back – but one major issue could see hundreds of flights cancelled this summer.
Australia is just days out from opening up to the world again – with the international travel ban to be dropped on November 1 – but a group of workers that are integral to ensuring our reopening plan goes smoothly are warning of big issues already.
The Australian Aviation Ground Handler Industry Alliance (AAGHIA) this week warned hundreds of flights could be cancelled this summer due to more than a third of the nation’s 16,000 aviation ground operations leaving the workforce.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the AAGHIA said thousands of workers have been without work and income for the past six months, forcing them to leave their aviation careers and look elsewhere for work.
The alliance also warned the situation with the remaining 9000 workers could worsen before it gets better as they wait for travel to peak again over the next three months.
The AAGHIA warned many would be waiting months for their income to return to normal, with fears many still in the job move elsewhere in search of immediate paid work.
The finalisation of JobKeeper in March left many workers without income, with thousands of professionally trained ground staff struggling to find work.
Airline staff were eligible for the payments but specialist ground staff, employed by third party operators, were not.
AAGHIA Chair Glenn Rutherford predicted up to half of the alliance’s staff were gearing up to leave the industry for good.
“We are likely to see many flights grounded in November, December, January and February owing to a nationwide shortage of professional aviation ground operations staff,” Mr Rutherford said.
“It will take at least six months to recruit workers when borders reopen, train them up to government standards and have them accredited by the government.
“The inescapable fact is that as borders reopen, and flights are rescheduled, many will be unable to occur due to a chronic shortage of vital aviation workers on the ground.
“What will be left is an industry of rookies, with many experienced and skilled staff having left the industry for good.”
The same issue has already hit Europe and the US, with hundreds of flights cancelled as airports grapple for staff.
In the US, things have become so bad, companies are resorting to handing out $US1000 bonuses to try and attract people to the industry.
Aviation ground operations staff perform 15 key functions at airports including managing all aircraft movement on the ground, communicating with aircraft control towers, aircraft cleaning, security assessment of passengers at check-in, driving passenger buses across tarmacs, in-flight catering and baggage and cargo handling.
“Without them planes cannot fly,” the AAGHIA warns.
Mr Rutherford said the AAGHIA had been speaking with the federal government since Covid brought the travel industry to a standstill – but especially since April, when JobKeeper started to dry up.
Despite that, an estimated 96 per cent of the government’s $5 billion aviation support package was provided to airlines and airports, with only four per cent left for the “vital third leg” of aviation – the ground staff.
Eighty per cent of all aviation ground operations are performed by specialist outsourced providers, with only 20 per cent performed by airlines themselves.
“We are hopeful Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport, Barnaby Joyce, will be able to provide emergency funding relief immediately to ensure half of the remaining workforce are not lost in coming weeks,” Mr Rutherford said.
“What at stake is Australia’s economic recovery. Without that support there could be a catastrophic impact on the national economy at precisely the time it is trying to reopen.
“All we ask is for our 9000 specialist ground handlers to receive the same treatment as the rest of the aviation industry.”
Rural and regional airports are expected to be hit the hardest with the smaller hubs having a greater reliance on outsourced staff.
”Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania could be particularly badly hit, although every state will suffer,” Mr Rutherford said.
The AAGHIA represents 80 per cent of all aviation ground handlers, which includes more than 9800 workers across 51 Australian capital city and regional airports.
Its members include Swissport, dnata, Menzies Aviation, Oceania Aviation, NTL Aviation Services, Precision Aviation Services, Aus Flight Handling and Star Aviation.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce referred to the funding already given to the aviation industry.
“Having the airlines ready to resume operations quickly as soon as they are able is critical to Australia’s economic recovery, and has flow-on effects to a wide range of industries including, but not limited to, aviation ground operations, tourism attractions, hotels, taxis, restaurants and freight,” the spokesperson said.