The coronavirus crisis has brought the aviation industry to its knees, affecting most parts of the supply chain, including aircraft manufacturers, airports and more recently ground handling companies.

Over the last few months, long-term leaders in the field, such as Swissport, Menzies Aviation and dnata, have admitted struggling to make profits amid travel restrictions and reduced passenger rates, especially in the UK and Europe. In August this year, they even wrote to the UK Government to ask for much-needed financial support. 

Among them, Swissport looks to be under particularly heavy pressure. Earlier this summer the company announced plans to halve its UK workforce, while its Belgian subsidiary recently declared bankruptcy after long months of losses. 

As the crisis persists  – and with the aviation industry only starting to adjust to the new reality – many fear for the fate of these companies and their employees, several of which have found themselves without a job at the worst possible time. And while protecting their rights remains on top of the agenda for local unions, many in the sector are already turning their eyes to automation and new technologies, hoping to create a decreasingly human-reliant supply chain in the years to come.

A long-expected labour crisis

Swissport has not replied to AIR magazine’s request for a comment, however recent events can speak for themselves. 

After months of significantly reduced activity, in late June the company’s UK headquarter decided to slash 4,500 jobs from its 8,500-people workforce. Chief executive Jason Holt blamed the decision on the “long period of uncertainty and reduced flight numbers, along with significant changes taking place to the way people travel and the way goods move around the world”. 

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Meanwhile, Swissport’s Belgium division Swissport Belgium SA/NV recently filed for bankruptcy after “all attempts to turn around the notoriously loss-making unit failed”, according to a press release.

But the case is far from isolated and not limited to Europe or Swissport. Earlier this summer, Menzies Aviation put some 300 jobs at risk of redundancy at Manchester Airport, while Australian airline Qantas said it would axe some 2,400 ground handling jobs and outsource them to third-party companies. 

The Covid-19 crisis is largely considered as the primary cause for these cuts, though as Unite the Union regional manager Clare Keogh told AIR magazine in March, in many instances it has been more of a catalyst than a trigger. “The crisis is having a huge impact on baggage handlers as flights are massively reduced and cargo and ground handling services are struggling”, she said. “Many employees […] have been furloughed and you will see this across the industry.”

“The global market collapse in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis has blocked the narrow path to recovery for Swissport Belgium SA/NV.”

A press release from Swissport Belgium SA/NV also made similar remarks as it read: “While some progress had been made as of late, the global market collapse in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis has blocked the narrow path to recovery for Swissport Belgium SA/NV and Swissport Belgium Cleaning SA/NV for the foreseeable future.”

Later in August, the company’s main branch – Swissport International AG – announced plans for a comprehensive restructuring that includes a debt-for-equity swap and a new €500m long-term debt facility. 

To be completed by the end of 2020, the move is expected to refinance a €300m additional interim facility and provide resources to support the business in the months to come. In a press release, the company said the transaction will help it “confidently trade through the market recovery”, though it made no mention of job retention.  

The ripple effect on regional airports

Over the past six months, Swissport UK joined a host of ground handling companies in sending two similar letters to Downing Street, asking the government for financial support.

Yet according to Unite the Union national officer for civil aviation Oliver Richardson, the move can only partially soften the blow of the redundancies. “This announcement along with other extensive job losses announcements in the aviation sector is having a devastating effect on regional airports and the communities that rely on them for their prosperity,” he says. “In fact, the catastrophic reduction in employment means that such job losses are placing the very future of some regional airports in jeopardy.”

“Job losses are placing the very future of some regional airports in jeopardy.”

In addition, in some cases, those who lost their jobs during the crisis may find it hard to get them back once the economy bounces back up. “Even when the sector does recover from the pandemic, given the scale of redundancies and the failure of the government to support workers in the sector, there is a real concern that the capacity to support returning operations simply won’t be there,” he comments. “The ability to ‘scale up’ or start-up will be limited by this.”

Since the early days of the pandemic, Unite has been urging the government to help companies like Swissport and their employees limit job losses. Despite an initially positive response from Downing Street, which put together a multi-billion-pound furlough scheme, the union is now urging for its 31 October end date to be extended. 

“The government should be providing further support for companies such as Swissport to preserve both the infrastructure of aviation and employment,” he comments, adding that systematic reforms need to be put in place. “Dealing with the scale of job losses and associated revenue reductions for service providers creates further obstacles to ensuring sustainable jobs, salaries and working conditions. 

“However these campaigns will not go away. If we are to reduce the huge turnover of staff and to retain the skills needed within the sector, then pay and conditions must improve.”

The rise of automation

While unions focus their campaigns on ensuring job retention across British and international ground handling companies, automation is quickly emerging as a well-performing, contact-free alternative to human labour. 

Airports to some extent have been trying to bring about a technological revolution, but once again the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to catalyse it and speed up the adoption of automation. In the realm of ground handlers, this means switching to automated baggage handling systems like Vanderlande’s flagship FLEET solution. 

Based in the Netherlands but operating at a global level, the company is hoping to leverage on the crisis to increase its client base for FLEET, which relies on autonomous vehicle technology to carry out a range of airport duties such as the transport and sortation of individual bags in a flexible way.

“Airports and airlines have slowly started to look ahead again.”

“[During] the first months of the pandemic, the industry has been in a [state] of shock and a survival mode but since then airports and airlines have slowly started to look ahead again,” comments Vanderlande FLEET general manager Koen Evers. 

“They have faced the volatility of the industry and the world on a massive scale [and now] want to make sure that once passenger numbers are back on 2019 levels, they will not be in the same position but instead have used automation to make their operations more flexible, resilient, and less dependent on human labour.”

He adds that the pandemic is opening up new opportunities for robotics and autonomous vehicles like FLEET, which has now attracted customers in the US and Asia where it is soon to be trialled and implemented. 

What will the future look like?

“We expect that airports will increase the use of automated vehicles to future-proof their operations as they bring several benefits, such as increased predictability (facilitating improved and consistent levels of productivity) and more robust operations that are less subject to disruption,” argues Evers. “A more flexible and resilient logistic infrastructure and a decreased dependency on human labour will become key in the future.”

“Protecting jobs will be about adapting skills and seeking opportunities to use skills in new areas.”

He says that autonomous vehicles make too compelling a case for operators to ignore; in the long run, their increased capabilities and reduced cost will “enlarge the sweet spot area” for their adoption. “Integrated end-to-end controls will ensure that the complete baggage process, planning and AV management can be operated, monitored and analysed from a single software suite and centralised control room,” he adds. 

However, Richardson maintains that not all can be lost to technology. “There are still significant areas of operation that are labour intensive and have not been subject to automation,” he comments. “Often the technology needed to do this requires significant investment either by airlines, airports or handlers.”

With investment currently being held back by lack of funds and poor revenues, he argues it might be a while before tangible changes are made. “If there is [a] significant regulatory requirement to introduce [automation] then this may change,” he concludes. “And protecting jobs will be about adapting skills and seeking opportunities to use skills in new areas and providing new services.”