Less than a year ago, Brussels Airlines was on the verge of financial ruin. The situation at the tiny Belgian airline remains far from certain – in the first half of 2021 the airline reported a loss of €143 million – but that hasn’t stopped flight attendants from threatening strike action.
Many in the aviation industry believed the pandemic would change the sector forever – nature, however, appears to be healing.
And it’s not just Brussels Airlines where workers are ready to down tools even amidst continuing uncertainty over what is in store for the industry during the long winter months when infection rates are expected to surge and yet more variants are likely to make an unwelcome appearance.
Baggage handlers working for Portuguese airline handling company Groundforce have already staged strike action over a dispute with TAP Air Portugal. And what’s more European than a summer air traffic control strike? Italian air traffic controllers staged a walkout over contested cost-cutting proposals last month.
Last year, with airlines grounded and travel restrictions in full force, airline workers didn’t even know whether they would have a job to come back to. But now we know travel demand is still strong, workers are already willing to start flexing their muscles.
It’s not necessarily without good reason. Whether through necessity or opportunity, airlines were quick to slash wages and working conditions for many workers through the pandemic. With flights schedules returning to near normality, workers are beginning to feel the real impact of these changes.
Brussels Airlines is backed by the massive Lufthansa Group but there was talk last summer that the European airline behemoth would let its Belgian subsidiary fall into bankruptcy. In order to survive, Brussels Airlines forced through major cost-cuttings that flight attendants had little leverage in stopping.
Many of the problems crew at Brussels Airlines are facing are familiar to crew at major U.S. carriers.
“The Lufthansa Group took advantage of the situation and pushed through reforms that they would otherwise never have been able to be put in place,” one leaflet that off duty flight attendants handed to passengers at Brussels airport explains.
Flight attendants say they are working “crazy combinations” and when they finish their last flight of the day, they find out a hotel hasn’t been booked for them. Other trips are being planned with a rest period of just five hours according to a flight attendant union.
“No need to explain to you, esteemed guests, the impact this has on fatigue and the mental health of our colleagues. Flights are already regularly being cancelled due to lack of staff,” the leaflet explains.
Flight attendants at American Airlines, Southwest and jetBlue have also complained of exhausting schedules. The Southwest flight attendants union says its members are at “breaking point” but unlike in Europe, flight attendants in the United States have to jump through many hoops before even considering a strike.
The same restrictions don’t burden airline workers in Europe who are now trying to grab back wages and privileges that were given up during the pandemic.
Conciliation talks between Brussels Airlines management and workers on Thursday failed but more negotiations are expected this weekend. If they fail, the trade union will consider a strike – although, for the time being at least, the union doesn’t want to “punish passengers”.
In travelling in 2021 wasn’t already complicated enough, expect an extra but familiar complication sooner rather than later.