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Terri Morrissey and Dr Richard Plenty provide their thoughts on some of the staffing challenges airports are likely to face as passenger numbers begin to rise in the second half of the year.

We are writing this column in London on Monday, August 2, 2021. From today, double vaccinated passengers from the EU and USA no longer have to quarantine on arrival in the UK. So, for the first time for over a year, there is an opportunity for friends and families separated by COVID-19 to be reunited without having to isolate.

A cause for celebration? Yes, but unfortunately just as UK airports are gearing up for this increase in passengers, Border Force staff in Heathrow and Gatwick have been hit by an outbreak of COVID.

Today’s The Times newspaper reports that this has seen more than one in four of them off work over the weekend. The requirement to introduce spot checks on passengers – as well as issues with technology at e-passport gates – have exacerbated these problems.

The immediate consequences have been ‘quarter mile queues at Heathrow’ and long waits for those impacted. The joy of reconnecting with people and places has been tempered by the practical difficulties of checking, verifying, and dealing with all the requirements of international travel. We hope that these particular problems will be resolved by the time this article goes to print.

Still, this specific example demonstrates the kinds of issues airports will have to face as international air travel starts to open up again – resourcing of staff; matching supply with demand; ensuring new procedures and technology work efficiently; working collaboratively with others who work under different governance and rules; and supporting passengers who find themselves caught up in all of this.

What a challenge this is for those who work in airports! Recent changes pave the way for a real recovery in passenger numbers and provide hope for the future, but planning ahead remains difficult due to the uncertainties associated with the pandemic.

Flexibility has become the name of the game. Employers want the freedom to move people around to respond to differing levels of demand without too many constraints. They have expectations around employee mobility, adaptability, and multi-skilling. At the same time, employees are increasingly assertive about their rights to work in ways which suit them, their working conditions and working hours.

These differing expectations can be hard to reconcile. To take a simple example, how should airports manage employees demanding a continuation of working from home for at least some of their time?

Changing times mean changing mindsets. We are looking at an environment where the ‘psychological contract’ between employees and employers may need to be renegotiated.

How can this best be done? These points were discussed at the ‘High Level Political Forum at the United Nations’ on ‘Decent Work’ on July 12, 2021. The American psychologist, Jeffery Saltzman, argued that the underlying psychology which motivates people has not changed over the years.

People expect to be rewarded fairly and reasonably, to be treated with respect and dignity, to work in an environment where they are able to do a good job, and to have a sense of personal future.

Airports whose leaders bear these principles in mind, have clear open communication channels, listen to their people, and involve them in jointly solving problems are more likely to be successful in recovering from the pandemic than those who stay stuck in the ‘old ways’.


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