Can UK airports avoid staffing chaos this summer?

As travel restrictions ease and passenger numbers increase, reports indicate that the return to pre-pandemic demand has not been as smooth as hoped for by many UK airports. Toma Pagojute, chief HR officer for workforce management experts Quinyx, explains why understaffing is the root of problem.

The idea of hopping on a plane and ‘getting away from it all’ has never felt more appealing.  

Yet stories of chaos at UK airports – cancelled flights and passengers fainting in long check-in queues – are already circulating, and we’re still not at peak season. Continued problems could see Brits reverting to ‘staycations’, which would be disastrous for the UK’s aviation industry.  

The main reason for current problems? Understaffing. As with many sectors, UK airports are experiencing significant problems with recruitment and retention, following the unprecedented challenges of the last two years.  

The good news is there are various steps that can be taken to increase on-the-ground efficiency, keep existing employees happy and motivated, and boosting workplace attractiveness for potential new staff.  

In my experience, success nearly always lies with a ‘people first’ approach, and one that uses technology to ensure agility. 

In an uncertain and fluctuating market, when teams are depleted and new recruits aren’t yet fully up to speed, efficiency is more vital than ever. Workforce management technology can predict peaks or troughs in demand and automatically ensure optimum staffing levels – the right cover at the right time, all at the click of a button.  

This hugely reduces the ‘person hours' needed to rota staff in, freeing up resource when it is most needed, in turn helping to minimise service disruption.  

We recently launched Quinyx’s annual global study, 'The State of the Deskless Workforce', which surveys around 10,000 frontline employees, including 1,500 in the UK. It found that two thirds (67%) of frontline staff feel they now have many job opportunities open to them; a marked increase from 2021 when just 40% were confident of securing another position quickly based on their skills.  

These figures point to a significant shift in employees’ attitudes, and in the job market. It’s workers who now hold the power, knowing they can take their pick from a vast number of unfilled roles. 

A volatile market can bring opportunities for workers 

While the escalating cost of living crisis may persuade some workers to stay in positions that they’re unhappy in, many are using the volatile market to their advantage, quitting for roles that are better suited to their needs. In fact, more than half of frontline staff nationwide have considered leaving their jobs in recent months. 

All of this means that a ‘people first’ approach is more crucial than ever. Without it, growing numbers of employers will lose their best staff, in a highly competitive market where they’re unable to replace them. 

Yet prioritising employee engagement doesn’t have to be complicated. At the heart of any successful staff strategy is ongoing, effective communication: regularly checking in with employees, even asking them outright what they want from their employment in order to stay – and then acting on that feedback.  

Our research found that money isn’t the key driver for many – top priorities for staff are enjoyment at work and flexible scheduling, followed by higher pay. Feeling that their opinions are being heard, and having ownership over their schedule often matters greatly to staff – and workforce management technology can easily facilitate both. 

Regular acknowledgement for great work also goes a long way when it comes to staff loyalty. More than a third of workers have thought about quitting because they don’t feel valued by their manager, and while monthly awards or team socials can feel like frippery when dealing with more urgent issues, rewards often play a real part in operational success.  

There’s a lot that employers aren’t getting right – and that applies to the airport industry as much as any. But with a ‘people first’ approach, and the tools and tech to make it happen, the wind can very quickly change.  

London City Airport

Recently ranked by The Telegraph as ‘Britain’s Best Airport’, London City Airport employs more than 600 staff. Prior to teaming up with Quinyx, its efficiency was affected by manual staff scheduling and ineffective internal communication.

“We used to have a lot of manual processes, so it was a big leap forward to use Quinyx. Manual rostering used to take at least a couple of days each week,” says Michelle Truss, HR airside business partner, London City Airport.  

Now, employees use their phones to access their schedules, and the time spent creating and managing staff schedules has reduced by 50%. Their annual employee survey had an 80% response rate when sent through the Quinyx app – more than double the number in previous years. 

Aviation security officer Belynda Maquis-Mondesir, who uses the app, says: “I feel like I have control – I can organise a shift swap on my phone and get a response there and then. It means I don’t miss out on family time, and you can’t put a price on that.”