How one airline’s pandemic hurt becomes everyone’s pain

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Through: New York Times |

Updated: Nov 22, 2020 1:45:51 PM


Virgin Atlantic passenger jets at Heathrow Airport in London. (Tom Jamieson / The New York Times)

Written by Eshe Nelson

After more than a decade working at Manchester Airport in the North West of England, Tracey Moore finally got the job she wanted: at the Virgin Atlantic passenger check-in counter. Then at 3:30 p.m. on October 22, after about a year of work and months off, she returned to the airport and put on her uniform.

She had taken a buyout and quit her dream job.

“I fought hard to join Virgin and that’s why I think I’m more upset,” Moore said. Devastated by the way the pandemic had deepened the airline industry, Moore agreed to the buyout because she believed her hours and pay would be cut if she wasn’t one of the people ultimately laid off.

“I don’t think I really had a choice,” she said, adding, “I loved wearing the uniform.

But she didn’t work for Virgin Atlantic. She was among thousands of people released at Swissport, an international company that provides ground handling services to airlines, including checking in passengers and loading and unloading baggage.

From check-in to take-off and landing, travelers with Virgin Atlantic end up interacting with hundreds of other companies the airline has hired to provide the services and goods that make for a smooth flying experience. The same goes for most of the major airlines. Virgin does not prepare food in flight, print menus, build business class seats, thaw wings, unload luggage at the airport, or return your luggage when it is lost; he hires companies to perform these tasks and many more.

But eight months after governments closed their borders and imposed travel restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus, lockdown restrictions have only been partially relaxed, and a second wave of the pandemic has besieged Europe, eradicating tourism.

Virgin Atlantic, which relies heavily on long-haul routes and transatlantic travel, has had virtually no opportunity to recover. The airline laid off 4,700 employees, or nearly half of its staff.

Companies under contract with Virgin, with names like Gogo (an in-flight internet provider), ESP Color (printing services) and Eagles Couriers, have also been knocked down by the pandemic’s crushing blow to air travel, in some cases reducing staff and closing facilities.

Information about these companies is rarely revealed. But this summer, as Virgin feared it would run out of cash in the fall, it struck a complex $ 1.6 billion private bailout deal. It included approximately $ 226 million from a hedge fund; capital raised in the sale of shares of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s space company; and debt deferral agreements.

As part of the plan, 162 companies around the world to whom Virgin owed around $ 69 million were given the essentially choice of being paid 20% less, with the balance being paid in installments until September 2022, according to reports. court documents, or risk the downfall of Virgin Atlantic. bankrupt, and perhaps recovering little. Most voted for the offer on the table, so it applied to everyone.

The organizations, which include a charity, large hotel chains and consulting firms, provide a map of the domino effect that economists have feared since the start of the pandemic: which companies most directly affected – aviation , hotels and restaurants – are reigniting a wave of devastation that could spread widely in the economy.

Virgin Atlantic declined to comment and referred to earlier statements. In September, when the refinancing deal was announced, Managing Director Shai Weiss called it “a big step forward in our struggle for survival.”

“We greatly appreciate the support of our shareholders, creditors and new private investors,” he said in a statement at the time. “Together, we will ensure that the airline continues to provide vital connectivity and competition.”

These companies have not attributed their financial problems to Virgin Atlantic, but rather to the cumulative pain of the dramatic decline in air travel.

One of the companies is Swissport Ireland, which is part of an international group that serves airlines at 300 airports.

“About 95% of our revenue is gone in two weeks,” said Luzius Wirth, executive vice president for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Swissport International. The company had to stop spending quickly and put as many staff as possible on leave, he said.

Swissport’s competitors have also been forced to cut staff considerably, including some workers who have spent decades behind the scenes at airports.

Leonardo Aquaro is one of the victims. In 2003, at age 23, he started working at Heathrow Airport in London in an airline check-in and ticketing counter. Most recently, Aquaro was the operations controller for Menzies Aviation, managing the flight dispatchers who quickly turn around the airport. In March he was laid off, then in September he was fired. He doesn’t think he’ll ever come back to the industry.

“There isn’t much there at the moment, although you have a lot of experience,” he says. And he says the industry has changed: demands for cost reductions have lengthened staff and worsened contracts. Instead, he’s studying marketing and web design online and spending more time with his 7-year-old son and granddaughter.

For Safran Seats GB, a Wales-based company that designs and manufactures business and first-class seats for Virgin and other carriers as well as Boeing and Airbus, the impact of the pandemic has come in waves. In March, it was the airlines that asked to postpone plans to modernize their cabins. Six weeks later, it is the aircraft manufacturers who postpone their plans for new aircraft.

The workers who make the seats have been hit the hardest, said Victoria Foy, the general manager. “Airlines that are clearly struggling to get money have said they cannot continue with these programs now,” she added. By the end of the year, she expects the company to employ around 900 people, 700 fewer than in early 2020, and at one of its facilities in Camberley, southwest of London, has already been closed.

For staff who design and develop new seats, the picture is less bleak. The delivery of a new design takes several years and Safran Seats can therefore afford to wait for the pandemic in this area.

“We believe – strongly believe – that he will come back,” Foy said of air travel. “It’s a question of when, not if.” In the meantime, Safran is working with other companies to design the interiors of airlines in the event of a pandemic, with larger partitions between passengers and a hands-free recline.

For Moore, who lost a job she loved, her last day at Swissport came on October 31. She traveled an hour and a half from a village in the Peak District National Park to reach Manchester Airport each day.

“There is nothing like the feeling of an unholy hour in the morning, you are walking airside, you are laughing with your friend and it is dark and the sun is rising and the lights are on in the planes on the tarmac ,” she says. “You can’t explain it, if you haven’t felt it.”

At 59, Moore has just started a new job as a nursing home aide.

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