“So, what do you do for a living?”

“I work at the airports.”

“Oh, well it must be a very quiet time for you at the moment…”

This is a scenario I’m sure many industry peers and colleagues, like me working in the aviation sector, have encountered over the last few months. Oh how wrong they are…

I won’t lie, the airport has been an eerie place over the last three months of lockdown; for a time, gone were the days of hustle and bustle, the chatter and laughter of holidaymakers in anticipation of a getaway abroad, the brand ambassador giving passengers a spritz of a new fragrance to hit the market and ceramic coffee cups clinking as businessmen and women got their morning caffeine fix before a busy day of meetings ahead at their next destination. 

The nationwide lockdown imposed in the UK on March 23 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic meant that the aviation sector almost shut down overnight as airlines grounded entire fleets and the Foreign Secretary issued a statement advising against “all non-essential international travel” with immediate effect. 

For a business that is built around providing a wide range of airport services, we found ourselves facing a situation where the whole landscape as we know it had changed; countries had started closing their borders and airlines had started to suspend flights. As a people-focused business, we made sure to engage in HMRC’s furlough scheme to help support our team members as much as possible during this business slow down.

All hands on deck

As the global pandemic showed no signs of improving anytime soon, adapting to this “new normal” was very difficult to get used to. It was a case of all hands on deck and despite all the physical work and wearing face masks, which can be really uncomfortable, I have been amazed by the great agility and flexibility all of our employees have shown during this challenging time.

Even working at really minimal numbers, having the flexibility of the ABM team, including senior managers, we were able to support a number of Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) repatriation flights. Getting hold of the information, which we would usually have the data and experience to know beforehand, on how many passengers required assistance on arrival back to the UK was another challenge in itself. For example, on a chartered flight from Jamaica, we were told there were 20 customers, when in fact we assisted 98. This wouldn’t have been possible without the additional support from staff who would usually be working in offices, who all came to help push wheelchairs, lift baggage and guide passengers through immigration and customers. 

And I can’t forget about all those employees sitting at home, some not allowed to work under the rules of the new scheme, who had very little insight into what was going on at the airports. From the senior level, it was important that we didn’t create a “them and us” mentality so this led us to create a Facebook account for employees, which within two weeks attracted a community in the region of 1,500 members. Despite all the negative news around COVID-19, we were able to see glimmers of hope and a restored faith in humanity as I saw colleagues on furlough in Edinburgh reaching out and offering virtual support to others in London who were struggling through these times, despite having never met before. 

The road to recovery

And now as we start to get back to some level of normality, we are seeing passenger numbers increasing at a larger rate than airports had forecasted. That’s why the work we have been doing over the last few months, despite some thinking this would have been a quiet time, is more important than ever to ensure that passengers are going to be looked after in a safe and dignified manner. 

This includes Perspex screens at our special assistance desks and on board inter-terminal buses to protect both clients and staff, enforcing the rules of wearing PPE for all staff and all times, revised training schemes to ensure the safe return to work, new one way systems in our offices, updates to staff restrooms and COVID-19 secure protocols for cleaning equipment regularly after they have been used by passengers. But this is just the beginning…

Life through COVID-19 has been complex. It has driven new ways of working and the next few months will be just as challenging as the industry tries to recover from the effects of COVID-19. It makes us proud of our people. It has given us the opportunity to partner with an amazing disability advocate like Josh Wintersgill, whose ‘COVID-19: Flying with a disability’ survey has given us our blue print for the coming months and years, as we look to help rebuild confidence in all people to travel.

Yes, it has been Complex. But it’s also shown us that without the Collaboration between airports and our partners, open and honest Communication between all stakeholders, Community spirit and Comradery shown within our teams at ABM, we wouldn’t be where we are today, ready to help get everyone flying again, not just quickly but, most importantly, safely. 

By Samantha Saunders, Head of Innovation & Regulatory Compliance at ABM Aviation

Originally published Aviation Pros | July 2019

Photo by 𝓴𝓘𝓡𝓚 𝕝𝔸𝕀on Unsplash