Heathrow Airport lays off 450 queue stewards despite social distancing 'chaos'

29 July 2020, 18:00

Heathrow Airport has seen large queues in recent weeks
Heathrow Airport has seen large queues in recent weeks. Picture: Jon Noble

By Ewan Somerville

Heathrow Airport has been accused of putting holidaymakers' safety at risk by laying off nearly 500 passenger ambassadors despite huge queues sparking social distancing fears.

Bosses are cutting all 459 of the ambassadors, whose role is to control crowds to prevent queue build-ups and help enforce face coverings, hygiene and keep travellers two metres apart.

Passengers have complained they were “packed like sardines” in “disgraceful” lengthy queues in Heathrow terminals and at passport control.

But staff have told LBC News there will be “total chaos” if the airport presses ahead with plans to make them redundant by 31 August, with queues “only going to increase” as traveller numbers rise now lockdown has eased.

“It’s been crazy, especially in terminals two and five. There’s been big queues - there was a day where it took almost an hour for the line to be held off, it was crazy mad,” Jose Martins, a passenger ambassador facing the axe, told LBC News.

Passengers have complained of 'chaotic' queues at Heathrow
Passengers have complained of 'chaotic' queues at Heathrow. Picture: Jon Noble

“We have the flights coming in from Gatwick too, so it’s been chaos. There’s been no social distancing.”

He said staff have been “outnumbered” in recent weeks, with just seven ambassadors for around 5,000 daily travellers in Terminal 5 and around 20 in Terminal 2 for up to 15,000 travellers - less than half the normal amount - as most have not been brought back from furlough.

Pictures posted on social media showed long tailbacks in Heathrow terminals. Jon Noble, a motorsport journalist, was travelling through Terminal 5 last week.

“There wasn’t any attempt to space out the lines so people were forced to cross paths with people several times,” he told LBC News.

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“After the precautions made at departure airports and on planes, with seats spaced out etc, it seemed ludicrous to throw everyone together in tightly packed lines.”

Capestran Fernandes, 21, another Heathrow passenger ambassador, said: “I am angry but what can we do - Heathrow is not backing us up. They know it’s getting busier and busier, it’s going to be chaos without the ambassadors.

“We have no electronic passport scanners… plus no e-gates. Immigration has been packed and the queues have been out in the corridors.”

Mr Martins, 45, also fears that elderly passengers will struggle without the help of ambassadors to fill in mandatory quarantine forms on arrival, which are on tablets.

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He said colleagues are “upset and frustrated” and have struggled to find a replacement job. He worries he will be made homeless.

Fiona Macken, 50, another passenger ambassador whose job is on the line, told LBC News: “As soon passengers came off the aircraft we could be there right from when they came off the door and make sure they kept socially distancing. You always get pinch points so we’d be able to control that.

“[We also help] people getting upset when others aren’t socially distancing. Just having a presence and reminding people would help the anxiety.

“It’s not good for anybody - it’s detrimental to Heathrow and it’s not good for the area we live in. Whole families are reliant on Heathrow or whole families work there, so it’s going to be awful. My rent and my bills still have to be paid.”

Finn Morrow, of Unite, said union representatives met with Heathrow managers for further talks on 17 July to no avail.

“Heathrow has made a promise to secure long-term decent pay jobs and when the opportunity arises they’ve just thrown that away,” he said.

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “From the start our priority has always been to protect as many jobs as possible, including through our contractors, but that is no longer possible.

“Due to the ongoing effects of Covid-19, Heathrow has to adapt to a new operating reality as we face a 96 per cent drop in passenger volumes and we have not been able to renew the contract we had with ABM.

“Heathrow teams remain on hand to support and facilitate social distancing at the airport, but due to the airport environment, there are points in passengers’ journey where distancing is not always possible.

“That is why face coverings are mandatory in terminals, and are provided free of charge, as they help to reduce the risk of transmission at the airport.”