Trade unions have condemned the owner of struggling Manchester airport for inflating bosses’ pay by almost a quarter in the first year of the pandemic even as the wages for staff were cut and hundreds of workers were let go.
The north-west hub has been hit by weeks of travel disruption and hours-long queues for passengers, leading to the unscheduled departure of the airport’s managing director Karen Smart, who stepped down on Tuesday.
However, the annual report of Manchester Airports Group, which also owns London Stansted and East Midlands airports, showed pay for the group’s managers rose by £2.8m to £12.2m in the year ending 31 March 2021 – the first 12 months of Covid when air travel slumped.
This represents an increase of 23% compared with a year earlier. Meanwhile, the highest-paid director at MAG – understood to be its chief executive, Charlie Cornish – was awarded an extra £500,000, a rise of 25% taking his total remuneration to £2.5m.
Aviation was one of the sectors hardest hit by Covid, and MAG said passenger numbers across its three airports fell by as much as 90% between April and August 2020.
Since the lifting of almost all coronavirus travel restrictions this year passenger numbers have begun to rebound, and last weekend the start of the Easter break was marred by waits of up to eight hours as airports and airlines across the country struggled to cope with staff shortages caused by Covid infections and layoffs. However, Manchester appears to have been less prepared than most rival airports for the reopening of travel, having suffered problems for a few weeks.
In a fight to cut costs during Covid, MAG embarked on a programme of mass redundancies, and held discussions with unions over its plans to cut 900 jobs.
It asked all of its employees to accept a year-long 10% pay cut, while the company also paused all investment and non-essential spending. But the annual report showed directors actually received more pay and bonuses than they had a year earlier.
The general secretary of the union Unite, Sharon Graham, said: “It’s the same old story: while destroying hundreds of jobs and cutting the wages of remaining staff by 10%, Manchester airport’s fat cats were awarding themselves massive pay rises.”
As Covid travel restrictions began to ease in January this year, MAG announced it was looking to recruit 1,000 people to fill roles ranging from security officers, customer service officers and car park staff to hospitality and lounge workers, ahead of an expected return of air travel.
However, recruitment has proved harder than airports might have anticipated, as labour shortages across the wider economy mean workers are in demand and can secure big incentives for joining certain professions, such as HGV driving. Airports also have to put new recruits through rigorous security vetting procedures.
Unions have said some workers may not be willing to return to airport work, which includes unsociable hours compared with alternative roles that have similar rates of pay.
“Manchester airport’s leadership has destroyed livelihoods and savaged wages, leaving the travel plans of thousands in tatters,” said Graham, calling on MAG to reverse the wage cuts for ordinary staff.
“The result is a chronically understaffed airport thrown into bedlam because of the greed of a few top executives.”
The travel disruption of last weekend has shown no sign of abating, with airlines continuing to announce further flight cancellations because of staff absences. On Wednesday, British Airways cancelled 78 flights scheduled to take off from or land at Heathrow, while easyJet cancelled at least 30 flights at Gatwick.
A spokesperson for MAG said all its directors also took a 10% reduction in salary as part of business measures enacted during Covid restrictions, which was agreed with trade unions.
“The annual report also reflects bonuses paid to all colleagues, based on the performance of the business in the financial year ending March 2020. MAG performed strongly in the year leading up to the pandemic,” the spokesperson said.
They said the annual report figures also included bonuses granted under long-term incentive schemes and termination payments to directors who had left, and added that the company had been required to report the salaries of a larger number of executives than previously.