Airport unions lack the organisation of their airline counterparts

Airline Leader

The public is well acquainted with the regular array of airline strikes. But what of the airport sector? How does that compare with the airlines and air traffic controllers for industrial unrest?
It appears that a comparative lack of organisation, with many different roles being represented by multiple unions, means that bargaining and, when required, strike action are less coordinated. However, when different unions choose to work together and withdraw labour, the impact on the travelling public can be every bit as problematic as action by pilots, cabin crew and air traffic controllers.
Airport unions are especially dismayed by concession agreements, but they sometimes engage in the most unlikely campaigns.

  • The airport sector faces challenges in organizing due to the complexity and diversity of roles represented by multiple unions.
  • Airport workers are generally less inclined to go on strike compared to pilots, cabin crew, and air traffic controllers.
  • When multiple unions coordinate and go on strike together, the impact on the traveling public can be significant.
  • Privatization and concession agreements of airports are a major concern for many unions.
  • Unions have influenced decisions on airport privatization and concessions in countries like Spain, Nigeria, and India.
  • Some airport unions engage in campaigns unrelated to their members' direct interests, such as advocating for the replacement of airports or reducing ticket prices on rail services.


  • The airport sector crosses many workplace activities and coordinated organisation is more difficult.
  • Only two of 680 transport unions affiliated to the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) have 'airport' in their title.
  • Airport workers seem to be less inclined to pull the 'strike' trigger, but when multiple unions can and do combine, the results can be formidable.
  • Spain, Nigeria and India are countries where airport union power has been felt.
  • Apart from wage bargaining, it is the privatisation and concession of airports that concerns many unions.
  • Some of the causes that those unions take up are surprising and unrelated to their manifesto.

Operational complexity, overlap and job outsourcing make organisation difficult
If the airline industry is a complex legacy business rife with unions, then the airports business is even more complex.
The airline industry has one product: transporting passengers from A to B, even if there is diversity by way of subsets of activity, such as catering and baggage handling (where airlines still manage those functions). Air Traffic Control (ATC) is even more product-focused, guiding aircraft safely through the sky as they travel from A to B.
However, the airport sector crosses many more workplace activities.
Apart from the physical activities of takeoff, landing and taxiing, there are additionally: the handling of passengers and cargo; providing for the safety and security of passengers and for their needs and wants (food and beverage, shopping, entertainment); catering for their arrival and departure by surface (car parks, public transport stations); within- and inter-terminal transfers; baggage handling; cargo handling and storage; fuel supply; maintenance and repair; emergency services; and customs and passport control. The list goes on. Many of these activities are organised directly by the airport but increasingly they are being outsourced to third parties.
At the same time and driven by shrinking aviation revenues, most airports are trying to find ways to supplement those revenues by non-aeronautical means. That could be something as simple as having a supermarket on the airport estate, or as elaborate as a full-blown airport city.
The irony is that this degree of complexity is not matched by the degree of unionisation. To take one example, the UK-based International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) is an affiliate-led federation recognised as the world's leading transport authority, connecting trade unions from 147 countries and their 18.5 million members across the aviation, rail, bus, taxi and maritime sectors. There are 680 affiliated organisations.
And yet, there are only two which bear the word 'airport' in the title. For the record, they are the 'Airports of Mauritius Employees Union' and the 'Airports of Thailand State Enterprise Worker Union'. Kudos to both organisations for permitting and encouraging such organisations to exist.
Airport workers seem to be less inclined to pull the 'strike' trigger than in the more volatile airline and ATC sectors. It is perhaps this lower level of organisation that accounts for that restraint.
Across the globe, the fact that the business is so multifaceted seems to conspire against organisation, whereas pilots, cabin crew and air traffic controllers can easily find and join an association that is entirely focused on them.
Membership is often in general workers' unions rather than job-related ones
Taking the UK as an example and extrapolating it into the wider world, there are four main types of trade union: general unions for skilled and unskilled workers performing different jobs in different industries (e.g. cleaners, clerical staff and transport workers); industrial unions; artisan/craft unions; and white collar unions.
In many countries, airport workers who are not classed as management are more likely to be represented by general workers' unions (in the UK it is the 'Transport and General Workers Union') or other generalised unions that support trades that are found in the airport sector.
Other such unions in the UK are 'Unite' and the 'Union of Shop, Distribution, and Allied Workers' (which may have members in airport retail shops and perhaps check-in and baggage handling staff).
The Trades Union movement began in the UK, and in countries where the UK has been a colonial power, such as Africa, 'Transport & General Workers Unions' are endemic. Elsewhere, in general, transport and tourism may be wrapped up in one union, such as in Jordan ('The General Trade Union of Air Transport and Tourism'). Sometimes, this will pitch competing interests against each other.
In countries such as Japan and Korea, the absence of an airport-related union is absolute, with unions specifically for transport sectors such as rail.
The lack of representation is so acute in some countries that voluntary, non-profit organisations which are not typically recognised as unions, have been instigated to represent workers such as 'Airport Workers United' in the U.S., which claims to have secured wage increases for 118,000 lower-paid manual members.
Where there is cooperative organisation, what do the unions actually do?
The ultimate weapon of mass destruction in the hands of the unions is the withdrawal of labour, which is damaging even when limited to the product of the company where the action takes place. Regrettably, it is no longer the ultimate weapon in too many cases, being wielded in lieu of negotiation at an early stage.
In the air transport arena, it can have devastating knock-on effects.
Strike action is still relatively rare in the airport sector. Of the many strikes that plague Europe each summer, for example, most are related to air traffic control or pilots. Few will be attributable to airport staff.
Part of the reason is the comparative disorganisation referred to previously, with multiple unions representing the staff based at an airport. The perceived benefit accruing to one small set of workers from taking industrial action might be harmful to other sets, and there are more 'other sets' than in the airline and ATC sectors. That said, as this issue of Airline Leader goes to print, the UK's Unite the union plans comprehensive strikes at both London Heathrow and London Gatwick airports in Jul/Aug-2019.
When unions work together they can be formidable
On the other hand, sometimes multiple unions combine and the results can be powerful.
One of the best examples is in Spain, where unions have been known to set aside differences to take on the state. Example organisations are: CCOO (the largest union in the country); UGT (effectively the General Workers Union); USO, founded as a clandestine organisation during the Franco dictatorship; and CGT, which includes customer service agents, airport firefighters, medical staff and other workers.
Typically these organisations do it through 24-hour strikes. There are legal limitations in place in Spain on the duration of strikes, advance notice periods, and minimum staffing levels in order to ensure safety (in the ATC sector) and to protect the critical tourism industry (all sectors).
Collectively CCOO, UGT and USO represent 60,000 check-in staff, baggage handlers and other ground workers at Spanish airports and can close airports down altogether.
They have called strike action for reasons as varied as: to register their opposition to the privatisation of the airport operator AENA (on several occasions), including a proposed IPO; to show solidarity with other trade unions in general nationwide anti-government strikes against broader economic or political issues that do not impact directly on the airports business; and, at the other end of the scale, to protest the dismissal of just four workers by a private company at Barcelona Airport.
The potential impact is so severe that on more than one occasion the Spanish Government has considered declaring a state of emergency to keep Spanish airports fully operational during planned strike action.
The other peculiarity about Spain is that occasionally strike action will be launched by local shop stewards at a single airport, not to protest local issues but national ones, such as the AENA privatisation. However, this masks the fact that the airports are usually those on the 'Costas' where the greatest number of tourists will be affected, suggesting that such action is centrally coordinated.
While not as potent as the industrial action of the Spanish unions, similar coordination of multiple unions has occurred in Italy.
In Mar-2019, for example, Tuscany Airports announced that a four-hour national transport strike would involve the FILT-CGIL, FIT-CISL, UILT-UIL and UGL air transport unions, including members from Florence and Pisa airports. Pisa Airport has experienced frequent strikes over the years.
Unions have directly influenced decisions on airport privatisation and concessions in several countries
Privatisation and government decisions in favour of offering the management of airports to concessionaires for anything from five years to 50 years (or more) often drive trade unions into strike action, on all continents.
In Paraguay the airport union, SOTA, organised strikes from very early on against government plans to concession out Asunción's airport. The procedure was eventually cancelled.
Nigeria is another case in point. Attempts to privatise the four main airports (Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano and Abuja) by way of concession have foundered because of a wall of opposition erected by a swathe of trade unions (including the 'Union of Pensioners') on the grounds that airport concessioning will result in job losses.
The unions, including the 'National Union of Air Transport Employees' (NUATE), demanded from the Minister of State for Aviation to know why another 18 unprofitable airports have not been commissioned first. Due to recent elections in Nigeria, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria [FAAN] and the Government have stopped the airport privatisation programme for now.
Nigeria is something of a hotchpotch. Apart from the FAAN-inspired concessions on these four airports, some states are going their own way, seeking concessions on smaller regional airports. The only private operator, which operates a terminal at Lagos airport, believes it holds the option of first refusal for the four airports, while at the same time it is fighting off attempts by the Federal Government to seize control of the asset it already has. Clearly, there is much work for the unions to do in Nigeria.
A similar situation has arisen in India, even though there have been issues surrounding union recognition by management, where otherwise powerful unions have fought consistently against airport concession procedures.
In the latest manifestation, those unions were able, by coordination with many other interested parties, to convince the government to suspend the award of a PPP concession on six regional airports (the first such activity since 2006) until after a general election. In 2013 they had successfully campaigned against a previous attempt to privatise four airports, led by the Airports Authority of India's Employees' Union.
The award this time was initially to the Adani Group, an organisation with no experience of airport management, and there were fears about job losses. Adani was confirmed as the operator (as this report is written) and is expected to be confirmed for the other three shortly.
However, that does not appear to have been the case at Cochin, an airport that is close to one of the current six airports - Thiruvananthapuram - and one that has thrived since its concessioning to an array of investors 25 years ago.
In some countries, unions are simply not welcome
Sometimes it is not just the fight to get recognition from management that dictates a trade union's impact. In some states, unions have a hard time just remaining in existence.
The ITF, for example, has raised the issue of ongoing trade union rights violations in Bahrain, highlighting the experience of the 'Bahrain Airport Service' (BAS) union. In 2011 thousands of BAS workers were dismissed from work, including union president Yousef Al Khaja.
Although a delegation from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) received assurances that Al Khaja and the other dismissed workers would be reinstated, it didn't happen. This prompted delegates to the ITF Arab world regional conference to make their solidarity with the dismissed workers of Bahrain a key resolution for the region.
The ITF also referred to other apparently anti-union measures, including the closure of the union's headquarters, the company's failure to deduct union subscription fees, and the abolition of trade union representation on the Joint Committee for Saving - a joint government and corporate body set up to identify areas where money can be saved.
Airport staff unions get drawn into campaigns that do not directly impact their members
Occasionally, a trade union will present arguments in favour of an ideal that is not directly connected to its membership.
Toronto Pearson International Airport union 'Unifor' campaigned hard for a reduction in ticket prices on the Union (downtown)-Pearson Express rail service while the line was under development, even though the union had already secured a discount for its airport employee members.
But perhaps the most bizarre example is the French 'Syndicat mixte aéroportuaire du Grand Ouest' (SMAGO), a union which appeared to have been set up with the aim of advocating for the replacement of Nantes Atlantique Airport with a new, EUR580 million, Nantes Notre-Dame-des-Landes Airport.
Unfortunately, it didn't succeed. After a series of violent demonstrations and the arrival in government of environment-supporting President Macron, the new airport project was forcibly abandoned by the government early in 2018, after which it had to negotiate compensation terms with the developer, Vinci.
It is not known whether favourable circumstances for Vinci for any of the forthcoming French airport privatisations (Lille, Marseille, Bordeaux etc.) were part of that compensation but if so, that would be ironic, as the French unions (with the obvious exception of the now-defunct SMAGO) are as anti-airport concession as their colleagues in other countries.