In the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, the aviation sector is fighting for its survival. Flight capacity has already fallen by over 40 per cent and three months of restrictions with a gradual recovery later in 2020 could cost airlines $252 billion; a 44 per cent fall in passenger revenue compared to 2019. If lockdown arrangements continue to the end of the year or beyond then we risk a wholesale collapse of the global aviation sector, which could send us back to the 1960s.
Protecting transport worker jobs in this crisis will ensure that airlines can keep global supply chains functioning
The impact of such a scenario would be disastrous for the global economy and the livelihoods of the countless people affected: The aviation industry directly employs an estimated 10.2 million people worldwide. The broader supply chains and related sectors that service or rely on the aviation sector support 65.5 million jobs. Even beyond all this, aviation connects families and communities across the world – connections which are more important than ever as the fabric of our societies comes under unparalleled strain.
At a time like this, when the very future of our sector is at stake, unions, employers and governments must come together to save aviation. We have not always agreed in the past, and we will inevitably have our disagreements in the future. Nevertheless, if we allow this crisis to take its course unhindered then soon enough there will be no profits for businesses, no wages for workers and no service for passengers and global and national economies. We cannot allow that to happen.
ITF works alongside the aviation industry associations
That is why the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), representing aviation and other transport workers worldwide, has come together with the International Air Transport Association (IATA), representing airline employers, to chart a course for the future of aviation.
When the world emerges from lockdown, airlines and air transport workers will be crucial for jump-starting the global economy
The ITF and IATA are working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and other key multilateral bodies to provide guidance on best practice and support measures. Aviation workers are playing a critical role in the crisis. They are making extraordinary efforts to maintain the vital supply chains which deliver medicines and medical equipment to fight the pandemic and to repatriate people to their home countries. Furloughed aviation professionals have even volunteered as medical auxiliaries to help healthcare workers on the front line. This is a source of pride for all of us who work in aviation.
Meanwhile, it is crucial that governments understand the importance of aviation in their national and regional economies and support the aviation industry. Protecting transport worker jobs in this crisis will ensure that airlines can keep global supply chains functioning with air cargo services and that they are ready to lead in the economic recovery when the pandemic has been contained. ITF and IATA are therefore calling on governments to provide immediate financial and regulatory support for airlines, in order to maintain the sustainability of terms and conditions for air transport workers.
Government role in the industry recovery
When the world emerges from lockdown, airlines and air transport workers will be crucial for jump-starting the global economy. Restoring air connectivity will require contingencies for licenses and certifications that have expired. Operations and processes will have to be adapted and travel restrictions will need to be managed in a predictable and efficient manner. To be successful in rising to these, and other, challenges, the response of unions, employers and governments must be aligned.
Bold decisions will define the future of aviation. Airlines and aviation companies did not enter into this current crisis on a level playing field.
ITF has compiled a suite of policy proposals which governments should enact in order to play their part. These include:
- Recognising aviation as a public good that warrants strong government, regulation and oversight, planning, investment, and where appropriate, public ownership
- Establishing and enforcing a minimum level of transport connectivity, using ‘travel bans’ only as a last resort and excluding air cargo operations from any travel restrictions
- Establishing national tripartite aviation bodies of union, government and employer representatives to develop strategies, coordinate investment and financial responses, plan the supply of labour and oversee all aviation operations
- Immediately extending sick-leave entitlements, maintaining incomes and extending social protections to all workers, including formal, precarious and informal workers, regardless of their employment status
- Reducing subcontracting and the outsourcing of airport services and jobs. Where appropriate, this should include mandating airport authorities to directly manage and/or employ all airport staff, including outsourced and agency workers, in ground handling, security, cleaning and all airport services
- Prioritising the use of airports for airlines with higher levels of public ownership to improve the financial sustainability of public assets
- Offering conditional financial relief and support packages to airlines, airport authorities and supply chain companies, including through debt relief, delays to tax and duties and public ownership of shares
- Agreeing conditions, if they are not already in place, for these financial and support packages, including on the private repurchase of shares following the recovery of the industry. These conditions should serve to protect high labour standards, democratise ownership and governance and prohibit share repurchases, shareholder rewards and excessive executive pay
- Capping profit levels to ensure reinvestment into debt reduction, fleet modernisation, staff training and education and other future-oriented measures.
Packages of government support reflecting these measures would lead to a substantial overhaul in the global aviation sector. Bold decisions will define the future of aviation. Airlines and aviation companies did not enter into this current crisis on a level playing field. A range of factors had already eroded stability: An oversupply of low-cost flights, deregulation and consolidation of ownership, the subcontracting and fragmentation of labour, and the prioritisation of shareholder rewards and executive pay over service quality, to name but a few. This systemic crisis is also an opportunity to turn a new page on aviation.
A fundamental point – reflected in all of these proposals – is that any government support for airlines must be conditional on employers observing high labour standards. Having received taxpayer funding, some airlines have done the right thing and used it to protect jobs and livelihoods. Others have taken the cash while at the same time launching an assault on workers’ pay and conditions. Irresponsible companies have no right to public subsidies. The tap must be turned off.
Nevertheless, the very real possibility of the collapse of the global aviation sector means that it requires special attention
Of course, support measures for the aviation sector only form one part of the necessary response to the coronavirus pandemic. In the shorter term, ITF is demanding that employers and government protect all workers from harm through the supply of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitation facilities. This also means classifying coronavirus as an occupational disease, which under international law would trigger additional social security protections for those workers exposed to infection in their workplace. In the longer term, we – and other global union federations – want to see a sustained programme of global investment, led by international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to ensure that the coronavirus pandemic does not become the coronavirus depression. Mobilising workers’ capital – including the retirement savings of millions of aviation workers worldwide – will play an important role in this.
Nevertheless, the very real possibility of the collapse of the global aviation sector means that it requires special attention. The world needs governments and employers to step up to the challenge of protecting jobs, livelihoods and international transport. The global economy – and all of us along with it – is dependent on these choices.