UK airport delays lead fed-up passengers to climb through luggage hatch

Undercover Channel 4 documentary reveals frustration at Manchester Airport

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Frustrated airline passengers took matters into their own hands during delays at a British airport, by crawling along a conveyor belt and climbing through a hatch to where luggage was being stored.

The desperate measures at Manchester Airport were witnessed by a reporter working undercover as a baggage handler for a Channel 4 documentary, Airport Chaos Undercover: Dispatches, to be broadcast on Monday.

The reporter, Jane Moore, said she was told by staff at baggage handling company Swissport that this was a common occurrence and that post-pandemic staff shortages were taking their toll.

Britain's first summer holiday season with no coronavirus restrictions since 2019 has turned into a headache for many passengers as long queues, cancelled flights and baggage problems tarnish the air industry's comeback.

Many passengers have reported problems at London Heathrow and regional airports such as Manchester, with labour shortages widely blamed after many staff were laid off during the pandemic.

The Dispatches programme quotes a whistleblower from airline Wizz Air claiming that pilots felt under pressure to work longer hours despite suffering fatigue.

The Civil Aviation Authority last month issued a notice to say there had been "a number of aircraft incidents" blamed on commercial and organisational pressure, whether real or actual.

"There is a shortage of crew and to avoid cancelling flights they encourage staff to work harder. There is pressure for us to help out by flying on our days off," the Wizz Air pilot said.

Long waits for baggage at UK airports are leading to passenger frustration. Photo: Channel 4

The airline's chief executive, Jozsef Varadi, was criticised in June for apparently encouraging people to "take the extra mile" if they were fatigued, although Wizz Air said the comments were edited out of context.

The airline responded to the Channel 4 documentary by saying that it would never compromise on safety and said it had a "world-leading fatigue management system" that complied with legal requirements.

Swissport, meanwhile, said it had hired thousands of new staff this year as travel swung back into gear, but apologised for the long delays exposed at Manchester.

"We are sorry for our part in the disruption some people have experienced at Manchester Airport. We are doing everything we can to mitigate delays for passengers, including hiring more than 4,100 people since January," the airline said in a statement.

One passenger appeared at the baggage hatch and offered to help clear the backlog of luggage. Photo: Channel 4

Moore said she saw baggage handlers performing physically demanding work on long shifts that would previously have been covered by two or more people.

The programme will show footage of one passenger poking their head through the hatch into a restricted area, saying they had been waiting an hour and a half for their luggage and offering to help unload bags to clear the logjam.

Swissport handlers reported that this was not uncommon, according to the documentary, which quoted one saying "it happens all the time" and another commenting: "People try coming through, they start fights".

"To be honest, I just don't know how people do these shifts and these kinds of hours, starting at 3am," Moore said.

"It’s absolutely brutal. No one gives them much credit. But without them no one's flights will be taking off. No one will be going on holiday.”

Updated: August 01, 2022, 3:28 PM
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