Australian airline asks senior executives to volunteer as baggage handlers to fight labor shortage

August 8, 2022, 10:53 AM UTC
Baggage handler carrying a tray full of luggage in San Francisco's airport
Airlines are figuring out how to handle a crippling baggage handler shortage.
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Labor shortage woes have gotten to the point that even senior managers are pitching in to help things on the ground run smoothly.

Arguably one of the sectors hardest hit by lack of staff in 2022 has been the airline industry, which is dealing with unavailable employees and travel chaos right as demand for air travel has started to pick up again after two years of dormancy.

Travelers have had to contend with endless delays and scores of lost luggage, forcing some airlines to get creative with their apologies (see Delta Air Lines offering free pizza to passengers on late flights—or $10,000 to get off an oversold one).

Now some airlines are getting just as creative in figuring out how to soften the labor shortage issues at the heart of all the chaos.

Executive help

Qantas Airways, Australia’s largest domestic and international airline, is accepting volunteers from senior staff and management to help with baggage handling delays on the ground, and is seeking at least 100 executive volunteers over the next three months to help address the issue.

In an internal memo circulated to staff and shared on Monday, Qantas inquired about any “expressions of interest” from management and executive staff to help with ground handling operations. Roles include loading and unloading aircraft, sorting and scanning bags, and driving the tug vehicles used to ferry luggage around the airfield. 

Qantas will provide full training to all volunteers in the program, who will be asked to help at either the Sydney or Melbourne airports. The note emphasized that there is “no expectation” that volunteers will take on extra duties on top of their normal roles, and that those who sign up will be able to rework their schedules and commitments with managers for the duration of their commitment.

Last month, a baggage handler hired by Qantas told the Guardian that as many as one in 10 bags were not making it through Sydney’s domestic terminal, citing an unmanageable workload with low staff numbers and rising demand for travel.

Air travel chaos

In the note seeking “expressions of interest,” Qantas cited workers sick from COVID or the flu in addition to the labor shortage as reasons behind the delays and lost luggage.

In a statement shared with Fortune, a Qantas spokesperson admitted that “operational performance has not been meeting our customers’ expectations or the standards that we expect of ourselves,” and that the company is “pulling out all stops to improve our performance.”

The spokesperson added that around 200 executive and management staff have already volunteered to work on the ground and expedite operations during busy air travel periods since April of this year.

Qantas is far from the only airline to run into staffing issues this summer. Last month, European budget airline Ryanair placed the blame on airports for failing to hire enough staff to cope with the return of air travel, which has come back so forcefully that airports have asked airlines to cut back on summer flights.

Airlines’ labor shortage is not only limited to ground staff and baggage handlers either. Airlines have also had to contend with a significant decline in eligible pilots returning to work after the pandemic, while demand for airplane mechanics and repair staff is also showing signs of outstripping supply.

Last month, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker told Reuters that the crisis was due to an “epidemic” of people working remotely during the pandemic. 

“This all happened because people learned to get easy money from working out of their homes, and fewer people now want to come and do the jobs that they were doing,” he said.

For those airport staff who are returning to work, it is quickly becoming unbearable. A recent survey in the U.K. found that nearly half the country’s airport staff were considering leaving their job because of insufficient pay relative to the stresses of the job this year.

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