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Britain's biggest airport could axe a quarter of its frontline staff after months of talks with trade unions about employee pay and conditions failed to land an agreement.

Sky News has learnt that Heathrow Airport informed union officials on Wednesday afternoon that it was issuing a formal Section 188 notice, triggering a 45-day consultation period that could lead to compulsory job losses.

Sources said that up to 4,700 of the airport's engineers, airside operations and security staff would be included in the consultation process.

Roughly one-quarter, or around 1,200, of those posts may be axed without a deal involving substantial pay cuts and changes to benefits such as reduced pensions for thousands of workers, they added.

One insider pointed out that Heathrow had pledged to avoid compulsory redundancies if the PCS, Prospect and Unite unions agreed to the revised terms, for which a deadline of the end of last month was set when the company's latest proposal was made on 5 August.

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A deal remains possible during the consultation period, but if one does not materialise, approximately one-fifth of Heathrow's total workforce of about 5,700 people could be put at risk, the insider said.

Such a figure would be consistent with previous warnings by Heathrow's boss that a quarter of all aviation jobs could disappear during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Under the terms said to have been proposed to unions, about 2,200 current employees would see their pay increase or remain unchanged if an agreement can be reached.

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Workers are also being offered voluntary redundancy packages on terms which the airport insists are "generous".

The final jobs toll will not be clear until later in the autumn but could ultimately be substantially lower than 1,200, a source said.

The latest development, which has been expected for several months as one of the world's busiest aviation hubs grapples with the catastrophic impact of COVID-19, will deepen the gloom engulfing the UK's wider travel industry.

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Last week, Heathrow's smaller London rival, Gatwick, said it would cut 600 jobs as part of a restructuring triggered by a £344m half-year loss.

Heathrow has seen passenger volumes collapse during the last six months, with July's traffic down 95% year-on-year.

On Tuesday, only 24,000 people transited through the airport, compared to the average daily summer season figure of 250,000.

The company, which is owned by a consortium of infrastructure, sovereign wealth and pension funds, has already cut one-third of its 1500 management roles at head office.

All head office employees have also taken a 15% pay cut, while John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow's chief executive, waived his salary for three months, and the company has halted dividend payments to shareholders until it returns to profit.

More than 4,000 Heathrow staff have been furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which is in the process of tapering off and is due to end completely at the end of October.

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