Heathrow is demanding thousands of frontline staff take pay cuts, sparking fears of job losses if workers fail to agree and a backlash from unions.
It comes amid mounting pressure from aviation chiefs and MPs for a UK government lifeline for the sector, which is battling to stay afloat as passenger numbers remain well below pre-virus levels.
Heathrow airport warned in a statement on Thursday the coronavirus had “decimated” the aviation industry, costing it more than £1bn ($1.3bn) since March.
Around half of Heathrow’s 4,700 frontline staff would be expected to take pay cuts of between 15% and 20% under the plans, according to one source close to negotiations.
The airport has been locked in negotiations with Unite for the past four months, and the union has said more than 800 workers have already left under a voluntary severance scheme.
Heathrow chiefs have now announced a 45-day formal consultation with unions, serving them with a document known as a Section 188 notice under trade union law.
But no proposals have yet been put directly to staff, and a Heathrow spokesperson said: “We have now started a period of formal consultation with our unions on our offer, which still guarantees a job at the airport for anyone who wishes to stay with our business.”
They added: “Provisional traffic figures for August show passenger numbers remain 82% down on last year and we must urgently adapt to this new reality.
“With air travel showing little sign of recovery, these discussions cannot go on indefinitely and we must act now to prevent our situation from worsening.”
The details of Heathrow’s proposals have not been officially confirmed. One source told Yahoo Finance UK around half of staff would see pay cuts of up to 20%, and the other half would be unaffected or even see pay increases.
But a Unite spokesperson claimed all workers would see pay and allowances cut, and said some workers could lose 24% of their basic pay, missing out on up to £8,000 a year.
Wayne King, a co-ordinating officer for Unite in the region, accused airport chiefs of “cynically using COVID-19” to drive through pay cuts to boost profits.
“This is pure greed, not need. Unite has made proposals that pay cuts should be temporary but Heathrow has rejected this out of hand.”
He said forcing workers “onto the breadline” was not necessary or responsible in dealing with the crisis.
King also said Unite would take “whatever steps needed” to protect members pay. The union is already holding a consultative ballot with staff, looking at support for any potential strike action.
The UK government is facing renewed calls to help the industry, and criticism over its travel quarantine policies.
Derek Provan, CEO of ASG Airports, which runs Glasgow, Aberdeen and Southampton airports, told the BBC the sector had seen more job cuts than Britain’s coal industry in the 1980s.
He accused ministers of “overseeing the demise of UK aviation.”