Qantas chaos: Outsourced baggage handler says 1 in 10 bags doesn’t fly | Qantas

On average, one in ten bags at Sydney Airport is either lost or not loaded on Qantas domestic flights, according to a baggage handler working for the company to which the airline has outsourced operations.

Guardian Australia can disclose separately that Swissport – one of the main companies Qantas has outsourced to provide baggage handling services – was itself forced to use two separate temporary work agencies to find workers for shifts that Qantas contracted to fill.

Amid widespread staff shortages in the ground-handling and airline companies as the struggling sector struggles to return to pre-pandemic travel demand, turnover rates are rising among new hires, scarred by chaotic scenes and poor conditions — with Swissport now US 50 Dollars a day is offering bonuses to Sydney Airport baggage handlers simply for showing up on their shifts for the rest of the year.

While global and local airlines have long relied on third-party providers to provide groundhandling services outside of their hubs, the dominance of Qantas and its low-cost airline Jetstar in Australia has led to a recent surge in lost baggage and its volume Airline with the worst on-time performance and cancellation rates in May, have contributed significantly to the chaotic scenes at Australian airports this year.

Qantas has been suffering from a shortage of baggage handlers since its decision in 2020 to outsource about 1,700 jobs. That decision was found unlawful and motivated in part by anti-union sentiment, and the airline is now seeking to challenge that finding in the Supreme Court.

In an interview with Guardian Australia, a Swissport baggage handler in Sydney – who requested anonymity for fear of retribution – raised concerns that those who load and transport baggage on and off Qantas and Jetstar flights are overworked, underpaid and not in able to handle the increase in luggage in recent months as domestic travel has surged.

The worker said that of the approximately 100 wheelbarrows, or trolleys, that haul 30 to 40 pieces of luggage to and from the bellies of Qantas planes at Sydney Domestic Airport each day, “today there are about 10 wheelbarrows a day that just pull do it no further”.

They said office managers from Qantas and Swissport rolled up their sleeves and helped move bags alongside handlers over the last school holiday, but “there just aren’t enough of us to get to all the bags”.

In recent months, Swissport has signed on recruitment firms Star Aviation and Workfast – the latter is not aviation-specific – to fill shortages in its teams working on Qantas and Jetstar operations. Training and processes vary by airline, with the aircraft type dictating how baggage is loaded.

The Swissport worker who spoke to the Guardian said about 25% of his colleagues come from temporary employment agencies each day, many of whom have no specific training. As a result, they said some were cutting corners or doing less thorough work.

“A lot of us are frustrated because we’re not doing basic things right. Sometimes they just move around but don’t scan bags, which is a necessity as it can mean we don’t know the weight distribution on an airplane or a bag’s arrival.

“They also dropped transfer bags onto arrival carousels, which is one reason bags don’t make it onto flights with passengers,” they said.

The staffer said staff attrition is becoming a bigger problem as the airport environment becomes busier and more demanding, saying many of those who came to Swissport when they did, as well as in the months that followed, either for jobs in others Industries or as well have departed with other airlines and carriers at Sydney Airport that pay more than Swissport.

They said that while employees didn’t complain about the temporary $50-a-day bonus for showing up for work, they were still frustrated with the conditions. “Swissport offers everything except permanent wage increases.”

In addition, Swissport advertises in cities like Brisbane for the company’s job vacancies new employees spend their first month at Sydney Airport – billed as a “great opportunity to experience Sydney” – where it also pays for their hotel accommodation.

At a recent job fair at Sydney Airport, Swissport hired part-time contracts but offered workers full-time hours on those contracts at $23.41 an hour.

The worker said recent coverage of Qantas’ heavy spending on new ultra-long-haul jets for direct flights to Europe has angered weary workers, and Swissport staff have increasingly spoken out about unionisation. “I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to see Alan Joyce on TV where we work and show off these shiny new flights.”

The worker also expressed concern that during a busy shift recently when a colleague injured himself, both the supervisor and manager were busy helping out with other activities and as there was no health and safety officer on site there was no one to report the violation.

“I would say to everyone, now don’t check bags if you’re flying Qantas, or better yet, if you can avoid it, don’t fly Qantas at all,” the staffer said.

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Staff shortages and turnover were a growing problem for ground handlers and the airlines that depend on them. An industry source told Guardian Australia that in recent weeks a company hired 20 new employees at an Australian airport on a 9am Monday. By 4 p.m. that day, eight of them had resigned, and by Friday of that week only seven of the 20 employees were left.

“The young people who take on these roles get yelled at, they’re underpaid and now they’re like, ‘You know what, fuck it, I’m going to work in a coffee shop because I’m getting paid as much or more than what I have here and there not the stress.

“And those who have been laid off during the pandemic say they don’t want to return to the industry that shut them down overnight. So we have this huge experience gap,” the source said.

Michael Kaine of the Transport Workers Union addresses the media at Sydney Airport in April
Michael Kaine of the Transport Workers Union addresses the media at Sydney Airport in April. Photo: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

The Transport Workers Union has long criticized Qantas’ outsourcing decision and has successfully challenged it in federal court. TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said Swissport had “no choice but to keep wages low because Qantas’ pressure on contracts is neither sustainable nor certain”.

“It is no surprise that Swissport cannot recruit or retain staff. Swissport would rather pay workers an extra $50 a day to show up for work, hire interstate workers and outsource to companies like Star Aviation than pay decent wages.”

A Qantas spokesman told the Guardian that “resource sourcing remains a challenge across the airline industry” and its ground handling suppliers had “improved significantly since the holiday peak in April”.

“Although much more needs to be done to improve our operational performance, the mishandled baggage rate has improved in recent months,” the spokesman said.

A spokesman for Swissport said the company has worked with Qantas to varying degrees for decades because “the scale of our business means we can offer a cost-effective, safe and reliable service”.

“The rapid recovery in travel demand has put pressure on resource sourcing across the aviation sector, both here in Australia and around the world.”

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