Supporting airport workers during the pressures of COVID-19

Eoin Coates, Head of Aviation and Daniela Modonesi, Ground Staff Committee Chair at the European Transport Workers’ Federation, explain that since the COVID-19 pandemic, unruly and disruptive passengers have become increasingly evident throughout airports, but regulations must be enforced to prevent any further distress to aviation employees.

Disruptive passengers are not new to the aviation industry. It is an issue the sector has been facing for decades, traditionally fuelled by alcohol and predominately an issue for inflight operations. Lately, however, we have seen a shift and disruptive passengers are becoming a more prevalent issue in airports. COVID-19 has triggered a different kind of aggression, activated by requirements such as wearing a mask, testing or border restrictions, and in all cases, it is the staff at the check-in desk or boarding gate who handle the abuse.

Lack of clarity in the travel system

Despite heavy industry lobbying for a simpler and more transparent travel system during COVID-19, states have still failed to provide the necessary infrastructure and clarity to staff, passengers, and operators to prevent incidents occurring in airports. The lack of action has led to the unforeseen consequence that frontline aviation workers are subject to greater physical, emotional, and mental abuse from passengers, as well as airports, airlines, and ground handlers all suffering from increased delays and costs, due to preventable issues.

But this is not a new phenomenon. Airports are stressful environments for many passengers, and that stress can sometimes lead to anger and frustration then directed at workers. In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was the first sharp increase in the amount of disruptive passenger incidents in airports, which coincided with the creation of baggage charges by lowcost carriers. While a good revenue stream for airlines, this provided a major challenge for workers as they were forced to confront passengers with further unexpected costs which caused significant tensions. To some extent, the travelling public has grown to accept this practice, but these day-today issues still cause great disruption today. Despite the verbal and sometimes physical violence, aviation workers have built the skills to adapt to their role in confronting passengers and continue to adapt to new roles and tasks.

In 2020 however, the industry changed forever, and this was evident in the boarding and check-in process which had become increasingly more complicated due to the complex and ever-changing documentation demands on passengers. Unfortunately for passengers, if they do not have the documentation in place, the result is simple, they are denied boarding. But once again the workers on the ground were the ones to manage this, placing themselves in the firing line between angry passengers and demanding airlines.

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