by Chris Stewart, Unite Irish Executive Committee (personal capacity)

On 5th March, Flybe – Europe’s largest regional airline – collapsed, with 2,400 workers suddenly losing their jobs. Workers and passengers were given virtually no warning. Flybe sent texts out at 2am, telling anyone booked on one of their flights not to travel to the airport. No alternative flights were arranged and many workers and passengers were left stranded, unable to get refunds. 

One passenger, whose flight from Birmingham to Glasgow was diverted to Manchester suddenly mid-air, said: “The passengers were very patient and a collection was done among everyone on the plane for those affected. We were patient because I think we realised a delay for us is nothing compared to potential job losses. Everyone’s thoughts are with all the Flybe staff affected.”

Media spin sought to blame the coronavirus for the collapse but, in reality, the profiteering of the company’s shareholders, who for years have been ruthlessly asset-stripping, and the failure of the government to intervene are to blame. Flybe’s largest shareholders, including Virgin and US hedge funds, are likely to recover money from the company’s collapse after mismanaging it into a crisis. Meanwhile, more than 1,300 workers stand to lose their pensions as the company’s pension fund is registered in the Isle of Man tax haven. While the super rich bosses will walk away unscathed, the company’s collapse will be a devastating blow for workers, as they are left without a means to support their families and pay their bills.

Local impact

In Northern Ireland, there were roughly 100 workers directly employed by Flybe who have lost their jobs. However, the collapse of the airline is now threatening the jobs of all workers in Belfast City Airport – including baggage handlers, check-in staff and retail workers. Swissport workers in the City Airport have now been informed of a “fourteen day unpaid stand-down period” – in effect, a temporary layoff. Last year, Swissport reported earnings of €200 million before tax. This callous disregard for their workers’ livelihoods is totally unnecessary, and is rooted only in Swissport’s desire to maximise profits in the short-term. 

Before the collapse, Flybe had operated 80% of the flights at Belfast City Airport, the loss of which threatens connectivity with Scotland, England, Wales, France and the Netherlands. As a result, the collapse could have a devastating impact on the wider economy, with estimates suggesting as many as 1,000 jobs in Northern Ireland could be put at risk. Unite, the union representing Flybe workers, is – at a local level, at least – calling for the company to be nationalised to ensure no loss of jobs or connectivity. Workers in all industries connected to the airline industry should not have their livelihoods threatened due to the incompetence and greed of multinational corporations.

Workers take action

On Monday, hundreds of Flybe workers met in their union’s offices to discuss the best way forward in fighting for nationalisation. Later that day, Flybe workers gathered at City Hall, speaking to city councillors in what they said was just the first step towards saving their jobs. Captain Chris Robb, base captain at Flybe Belfast City Airport, spoke to the Belfast City Council on the failure of the government to intervene to save these jobs:

“The government had the opportunity to fix this a few weeks ago. That didn’t happen. If this is not addressed urgently, the whole economy of Northern Ireland is going to suffer immensely.”

Belfast Telegraph ( March 9th 2020)

The boss of Belfast City Airport claims he is “very confident” that other airlines will take Flybe’s defunct routes. However, while it was announced that Loganair will be taking over some of these routes, in reality they are only taking on 2% of those offered by Flybe. This will be little consolation to Flybe workers who have no way to pay their bills, nor Swissport workers who now find themselves without an income. Mismanagement and profiteering has caused this crisis, and capitalists that seek only to cut jobs and asset-strip are no solution. 

If action is not taken soon, the effect of the collapse will spiral into retail, hotels, taxis, buses, tourism and the economy generally. To avoid this and to save jobs, the airline should be nationalised and brought under the democratic control of the workers who actually run the service, rather than the super rich who seek only to profit off of it. Only this will maintain connectivity with flight routes that are crucial to the wider economy and ensure all workers keep their jobs.