‘Devastation’: how aviation industry’s Covid crisis is hitting towns across UK

Masked-up and carrying placards and banners, 40 or so demonstrators walk out of a pedestrianised shopping street and make their way to the office of a newly elected Conservative MP, above a Chinese restaurant. Once there, they join in sporadic chants of “No justice, no peace.”

It’s a drizzly, near-silent lunchtime in the Welsh town of Bridgend, a place that has played its own small role in Britain’s recent political convulsions, voting for Brexit and, in 2019, returning its first Tory to Westminster since 1983.

Thanks to plans that were announced in April 2019, Ford will shut its local car-engine works next month, with the loss of nearly 1,700 jobs. Now, the sudden effects of Covid-19 on the local aerospace industry are only adding to the pain. The recession and the prospect of mass unemployment are not distant and abstract things here: they are real, and increasingly urgent.

This small protest has been organised by the trade union Unite. Its focus is British Airways, how the airline has responded to the global crisis in aviation triggered by Covid-19 – and, as the people involved see it, the fact that a huge jobs meltdown in their industry has so far received far too little attention from Boris Johnson and his colleagues.

Some of the people present are cabin crew, who are faced with a policy known as “fire and rehire”, whereby many BA employees must in effect choose either redundancy or reduced pay. Other protesters have come from three places in south Wales where BA engineers see to the nuts and bolts of aviation: the nearby towns of Blackwood and Llantrisant, and a facility at Cardiff airport, where the changes announced by BA will mean about 400 job losses.

Near Caerphilly, nearly 600 posts are being lost at the vast aeroplane engine maintenance plant run by the global giant General Electric, which before the pandemic employed 1,400 people.

Taken together, the losses are a huge blow to a cluster of aerospace sites that up to now were one of the few sources of secure, well-paid and unionised work in a part of Britain whose modern history is bound up with the closure of coalmines and steelworks, and the steady loss of thousands of jobs in engineering and manufacturing. South Wales has suffered nearly 40 years of deindustrialisation; now there is a widespread sense that the Covid crisis could take things to a grim conclusion.

British Airways traces what it is happening to the fact that it has spent five months flying only 20% of its usual schedule. Replying to a set of specific points about the fate of BA jobs in Wales and the airline’s handling of the crisis, a BA spokesperson offers an on-the-record response of just over 100 words. It emphasises “the biggest challenge the airline and our industry has ever faced”, the insistence that “we have to adapt to survive”, and a claim that “It is not too late to find solutions … and to protect jobs”.

One of Unite’s grievances is the fact that whereas past redundancy packages have been based on two weeks’ pay for every year worked, BA now wants to go down to the statutory minimum of one week, subject to a minimum of £15,000. Insisting on speaking anonymously, three men from the Llantrisant plant – which sees to avionics, the electronic aspects of aviation – also talk about the local context for what is happening: job markets stripped of opportunities, and a complete lack of any comparable work.

If they are made redundant, what are their options? “Driving for Amazon or Tesco,” says one.

“Working in Lidl or Morrisons,” offers another.

Keith Morgan is a Unite convenor at the Llantrisant site. He spent the first part of his working life as a coalminer, before he took a job with BA as an electro-mechanical engineer, working on everything from control of planes’ wing flaps to air conditioning units.

“You imagine working in the mines, and then working on components for Concorde,” he marvels. “Supersonic aircraft – it was just unbelievable. We were once all given BA T-shirts, because we’d repaired 100,000 units. And people wore them. People felt really proud of working for British Airways.”

And now? “The older you are, the harder it’s going to be. People who fix aircraft computers looking at driving jobs – it’s sad.”

‘We want to build’

With governments issuing endless travel bans and restrictions, 7.5m flights were cancelled around the world between January and July. British Airways’ predicament has arguably been made worse by its refusal so far to approach the British government for the kind of state help given to such European airlines as Lufthansa and Air France.

The crisis has had a direct and rapid effect on people who make and maintain aeroplanes and their engines. In Broughton in north Wales, where employees of Airbus assemble wings for the company’s entire range of planes, there are plans to cut 1,400 jobs from a total of 6,000. In Derby and Nottinghamshire, Rolls-Royce – that byword for British engineering excellence – is expected to lose about 1,500 workers.

The industry umbrella group ADS puts the number of aerospace jobs under threat at up to 30,000, a figure that does not include the effects on local businesses that depend on the aerospace sector, from taxi firms to hotels.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy says that over the next 18 months, the value of government “grants, loans and export guarantees” to aerospace and aviation will total £8bn. But industry experts say this represents a mixture of measures, some of which would be happening anyway, and that the UK’s efforts are dwarfed by what is happening in some European countries.

In France, for example,the government has announced a €15bn (£13bn) aid package for the sector, in return for which companies will have to invest more in plans for low-emission aircraft, powered by electricity and hydrogen – part of a quest to make the French aviation the “cleanest in the world”.

For people making the case for state intervention, this represents something very significant. The aerospace giants themselves emphasise their work on cleaner, lighter planes, and the possibility of carbon-neutral flight; trade unionists and politicians point out that if we want any kind of green transition, making engineers unemployed is hardly the way to go about it.

The vast General Electric site sits next to Nantgarw, a former pit village near Caerphilly whose colliery closed in 1986. In 2017, it was given the contract to service the GE9X, “the world’s largest and most fuel-efficient jet engine”. Thanks to the Covid crisis, 180 jobs at the plant have already gone via voluntary redundancy, with another 369 to follow – which, say insiders, will inevitably mean compulsory job losses.

Kerry Owens is an aircraft engineer at the plant, and the son and grandson of coalminers. He had his sights set on working in a pit, “but it was at the time when Maggie was shutting them”. He now has a degree in mechanical and manufacturing engineering taken as a mature student, and a senior role in Unite.

“There’s no clear industrial strategy coming from this government,” he says. “There are no ministers with any inkling about what industry – or a lack of it – can do for this country.

“Do they think we can all work in call centres? We want to engage with new technology, if the government will support our industry. We want to build; we want to make. If the next thing is something in green technology, we can do it.”

Emma Barnsley lives near the village of Hengoed. She has worked at the GE plant for 34 years, since being hired at 16 as part of the Thatcher-era Youth Training Scheme. As well as being a Unite shop steward, she sees to “office services”, which encompasses looking after visitors, the site’s telephone system, on-site events and much more besides. Since April she has been furloughed.

She and her colleagues’ anxiety, she says, is “constant. I have 103 people on my WhatsApp group, and hearing from people … the mental health aspects are affecting everybody. People want to know who’s affected, what’s going to happen, when they’re going to know. It’s heartbreaking.”

Her view of what the redundancies will mean is stark. “I think it’ll be absolute devastation. If the government can step in and help, the aviation industry will come back. We need help to let us ride this out.”

‘The crisis is just enormous’

In Derby, Simon Burr works in the management tier of Rolls-Royce, as the company’s director of product development and technology. This year his company is aiming to break the world speed record for electric flight. “That’s so one day, people can actually sit in an electric plane, for short-range flights, and maybe use hybrid for longer range,” he says.

In the meantime, Rolls-Royce faces dire circumstances. The company is cutting 9,000 jobs around the world (about a fifth of its global workforce), 3,000 of which will be in the UK.

Even if they can be mostly shed via voluntary redundancy, that hardly detracts from the size of the cut, and what it means for future employment and opportunity.

The aerospace industry’s crisis, says Burr, “is just enormous. Airlines have got huge debts. Everyone’s got huge debts, and it’ll take years to recover from that.”

Rolls-Royce employees have deferred 10% of their pay until next year, and senior management have taken the same size of pay cut. “Any cost that we could trim back, we did,” says Burr. “Redundancy is the very last thing you do. But eventually, if the market isn’t going to recover, you have to deal with your structural costs. And a big part of that is employment.”

The crisis in manufacturing jobs is hitting Northern Ireland hard. In a single week in June, it was announced that 1,100 jobs were to go in its aerospace sector, including 600 at the Belfast factory owned by Bombardier, which makes wings for Airbus.

Kilkeel is a scenic fishing port in County Down, close to the Mountains of Morne, and the home of a big local factory that makes aeroplane seats.

Owned by the US-based Collins Aerospace since 2016, the factory employs about 950 people. Now, 235 jobs are to go. The company says it needs “to take this moment to right-size our facility because it will take years before the commercial aerospace market returns to anything like it was before the crisis began”. How the losses will fall between voluntary and compulsory redundancies is so far unclear.

“The aviation industry looks as if it’s crumbling down around us,” says one woman who works at the plant. “There was a lot of overtime at the factory, and people were living above their means: the overtime paid for their mortgage and whatever. And now they’re going to be lucky to have a job at all.”

Patrick Murphy has worked at the Kilkeel plant for 13 years, as a technician. “I’m at the bottom of the ladder and I’m making maybe 35k a year,” he says.

“The company pays out about £3m in wages per month. And if we’re going to lose nearly a third of the workforce, that’s a massive impact on the local economy.

“It’s just been knock after knock in Northern Ireland. A real fear is that we’re just getting over the Troubles, really. And one of the big aspects of the Troubles was unemployment and the social conditions here. If people have nothing to do, they find other forms of activity, you know?”

As he sees it, the feelings that have been sparked by looming unemployment fall between fear, and people’s sense of anger and frustration. “It’s starting to become more tangible now, the feeling of discontent here, about the government not doing anything,” he says. “It’s just exasperating.”

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