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Wingless airline industry

Thousands of unclaimed suitcases, annoyed passengers who stand in line for hours and then miss their plane: This is what air traffic will look like in the summer of 2022. Lufthansa has canceled almost 6,000 flights for July and August alone. Behind this, however, are the working conditions of airport employees, some of which are so bad that people simply no longer want to work there – or get sick.

Cut-throat competition at the expense of employees?

The economic sociologist Erik Sparn-Wolf has been investigating working conditions in the aviation industry on behalf of the left since 2018. His study is entitled "Losers in a buoyant industry". Because even if Corona has made it particularly difficult – from his point of view, the working conditions around air traffic have been getting worse for years.

"Originally, the causes actually lie in political deregulation and liberalization since the 1990s, which were initiated at EU level," explains Sparn-Wolf. "As a result, there is now real competitive and cut-throat competition among air transport providers in all trades, which is ultimately carried out through personnel costs and thus at the expense of the employees."

Corona causes migration in boom industries

The association of the aviation industry contradicts this. They emphasize how attractive air travel is as a job. Even during the pandemic, not many jobs were cut.

However, you can also see here that the industry has a problem in times when there is a shortage of workers. The managing director of the Federal Association of the German Aviation Industry, Matthias von Randow, says: "In the difficult phase and in the uncertain perspective during the pandemic – where is air traffic actually going, is it going to pick up again? – we have found that a whole series of employees have looked for other jobs in other sectors of the economy, for example in the booming area of logistics."

Incidentally, the association does not see a real solution in the workforce, which is now supposed to come from Turkey in particular. This is a completely different topic and has nothing to do with the structural problems in air traffic. The approval for these workers from third countries is only temporary, one emphasizes here. Only further facilitation of immigration into the German labor market would help. Otherwise there would be personnel bottlenecks throughout the German economy.

High sick leave is an additional burden

The association also points out that the flight offer in the 2022 summer timetable is only 77 percent of the 2019 offer. But since not so many people have been laid off, there should actually be more workers now – but they aren't.

At least one partial explanation is the immensely high level of sick leave. A former employee of Frankfurt Airport, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that the physically demanding work on the runway or when cleaning the aircraft has always meant that there has always been a sickness rate of ten to 15 percent. Now it is up to 30 percent.

Of course, this makes the situation even more difficult for those who remain, emphasizes the economic policy spokeswoman for the CDU parliamentary group, Julia Klöckner. "It's like a vicious circle, especially with the airlines," she says. Because the remaining employees would have to shoulder more and more work. "Either they get sick or they look for other work. It's now about offering attractive jobs and realistic flight times, because the frustration is also on the part of those who have booked a flight," said Klöckner.

Consequences of the high competitive pressure

Klöckner does not see the fact that air traffic was liberalized during the time of the CDU government as a problem, but instead thinks that the CDU, as the federal government at the time, "made the issue of the shortage of skilled workers and workers an absolute issue". "By the way, there is also immigration of skilled workers. And that's where the new federal government must finally step on the gas and not stop with what we have worked out as a template."

However, the present study on the aviation industry emphasizes that the working conditions for employees have changed massively over the years and decades and have deteriorated. Economic sociologist Sparn-Wolf sees the companies themselves in "radical economic competition and cut-throat competition, in the course of which personnel structures and working conditions came under enormous rationalization and cost pressure".

Cheap tariffs at the expense of the employees

Sparn-Wolf has spoken to employees from various sectors of the aviation industry since 2018, all of whom have worked there for many years. What he learned reveals the great pressure that employees in the industry have to suffer from. It is striking that there are apparently problems in all income brackets.

"We're going to war"

In some places, the cleaning staff in particular only employ half of those who cleaned ten years ago. In addition, the people are often only used for short shifts, which means that great flexibility is required. It is therefore hardly possible to do another part-time job that would be economically necessary. That's why the minimum wage is hardly enough.

Left party leader Janine Wissler believes that politics is failing. "This work must also be well paid, and in recent years we have seen more and more companies avoid collective bargaining, outsource jobs to temporary work and thus make working conditions much worse," she criticizes.

Exhausted employees, higher risk

And the study points to another aspect that is important for everyone who flies: If increasingly exhausted, frustrated and overburdened employees are used in air transport, then, in the worst case, procedural errors and security gaps can arise.

If new employees still have to be trained and their training is carried out under great time pressure – as is the case now – then this not only reduces the quality of work – it also makes flying less comfortable and less safe for all passengers.

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