Hundreds of the aviation industry’s head office workers have found themselves checking in bags, directing queues and responding to other front-of-house customer service requirements as the sector continues to grapple with global staff shortages and unparalleled demand for travel.
Since April, corporate employees at Qantas, Virgin, Melbourne Airport and Sydney Airport have been enlisted on an ad-hoc basis as frontline volunteers during busy periods.
Last week, Qantas sent out a formal plea to managers and executives to opt into a “short-term arrangement” over the next three months when they would elect to swap out some of their corporate duties for loading and unloading aircraft and driving a tug (the vehicle used for ferrying luggage around the airport).
Queues snaking outside Sydney Airport’s domestic Terminal 2 in July. Credit:Oscar Colman
In the note, Qantas said the high levels of winter flu, a COVID-19 surge and the ongoing “tight labor market” were responsible for the “operational challenge” the airline faces.
The airline said they required at least 100 managers to take part in the program, which would require at least 12 to 18 hours over three shifts a week from August to December, but would not require volunteers to participate in addition to full-time responsibilities.
“We’ve been clear that our operational performance has not been meeting our customers’ expectations or the standards that we expect of ourselves – and that we’ve been pulling out all stops to improve our performance,” a spokesperson from Qantas said.
About 200 Qantas head office staff have participated in the program since it began in Easter.
Qantas outsourced baggage ground handling in 2020, resulting in 1700 redundancies. The Federal Court found the move was in breach of the Fair Work Act, a verdict the airline is appealing in the High Court.
At the time, the airline said it could save $100 million a year by shifting baggage handling, aircraft cleaning and ground support work to a third-party aviation service provider such as Dnata or Swissport at 11 airports.
As reported by this masthead in April, Qantas and Virgin enlisted corporate staff at airports over the Anzac Day weekend after passenger hold-ups caught carriers flat-footed during Easter.
Rex Airlines and Virgin do not have plans to follow Qantas in introducing a formalised corporate scheme.
During the April school holidays peak, 120 people from Sydney Airport’s corporate ranks took to the floors of the airport to help with flight prioritisation, queue direction and provide water to customers in long lines. In July, the airport outsourced 60 customer service professionals who reduced the need for corporate volunteers.
A spokesperson from Melbourne Airport said it was not uncommon for corporate staff to volunteer in customer service positions during busy periods, including school holidays, to assist airlines in getting flights away on time.
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