Former airline worker: 'It would be like going back to an ex'

By Dougal Shaw
Business reporter, BBC News

  • Published
Queues at Heathrow Airport on 1 June 2022Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Passengers getting away for the Jubilee weekend were eventually asked not to arrive early at airports to try to manage long queues

From pilots to ground crew, it is no secret that the airline industry is struggling to recruit enough staff to cover peak summer holiday season.

Travel chaos during Easter week, half term and over the Platinum Jubilee weekend have all been partly blamed on acute staff shortages, which saw thousands of passenger flights cancelled, while both Heathrow Airport and British Airways have said there are more cancellations to come.

The sector is scrambling to recruit after around 30,000 airline workers lost their jobs in the UK during the pandemic. But ahead of the summer season and a boom in ticket sales, will workers be tempted to return?

We spoke to several former aviation industry workers in 2020 who quit to set up their own businesses. Where do they stand now?

'I'm not tempted in the slightest. It would be like going back to an ex'

Image source, Sonya Dhillon
Image caption,
Sonya Dhillon has found success starting a digital marketing company

Sonya Dhillon, 33, worked at the customer service check-in desk for Virgin Atlantic at Heathrow Airport for five years, but took redundancy in 2020.

Many colleagues felt redundancies weren't necessary at the time and they could have been put on furlough, she explains. When redundancies were made, she didn't think the selection process was fair, and declined to be put on a waiting list to return to the company in the future.

Virgin Atlantic says it ran a lawful and open redundancy process after full consultation with recognised unions, and ensured people were treated "fairly and with compassion".

Ms Dhillon has kept in touch with many of her former colleagues, who felt forced out, but were still determined to return - and some have done so in 2022.

However, Ms Dhillon went on to develop an events business she had been running as a side-hustle, Ricco Events, which she then adapted into a digital marketing agency after lockdown restrictions.

"I've put all my efforts and energies into growing [it] and it is blooming exactly as I intended," says Ms Dhillon.

She now has four permanent staff and works with a team of freelancers. Her income has increased "tenfold" compared to her old job, though it's been a particularly good year.

Media caption,

Sophie Southwood explains why cabin crew skills are transferable

Virgin Atlantic got in touch with her earlier this year to see if she would be interested in getting her old job back. However, the pay was less than before and the working patterns less flexible, she says.

"I politely declined. Besides the attractive perks [on things like cheap flights, upgrades and hotel deals], it's just not the same place as it once was and not somewhere I can see career growth.

"I'm not tempted in the slightest. It would be like going back to an ex."

'Pilots have become wiser to the world outside the cockpit'

Image source, Paul Green
Image caption,
Paul Green is transferring his pilot's skills to helping businesses

Paul Green, 36, had always dreamed of being a pilot.

He eventually fulfilled his dream working as a first officer with BMI Regional (later rebranded as Flybmi), and then a captain with Flybe.

Both of those airlines went into administration before the pandemic, so he was no stranger to job insecurity in the industry, even before Covid struck.

When Flybe collapsed in March 2020, in the first few months of the pandemic Mr Green volunteered with the NHS.

He then launched a business consultancy in May 2020 called The Cockpit Method, based in Bath.

He trains everyone from architects to accountants and NHS managers, in decision making under pressure.

The money he now earns from the business matches his pilot's salary, he says. In fact, he has even set up a second business that specialises in recruitment consultancy, which is also starting to do well.

Image source, Paul Green
Image caption,
Mr Green would still consider a return to commercial piloting if the terms improved

"I have been headhunted twice in the past month, for flying jobs, both with private jets," says Mr Green.

Flybe, which was later bought out of administration, also approached him, along with other former pilots, but Mr Green wasn't interested.

The salary being offered was less than his previous role as a pilot with them, and he would have had to relocate to Belfast.

"Pilots have become wiser to the world outside the cockpit," says Mr Green.

"And it's not just pilots. I know baggage handlers who don't want to go back to the aviation industry either, they feel more valued in their new jobs."

'It's a family, you have such a feeling of belonging'

Image source, Jasvinder Kalsi
Image caption,
Jasvinder Kalsi is returning to British Airways

Jasvinder Kalsi, 43, from Buckinghamshire worked for two decades at British Airways as a customer service agent, dealing with passengers at check-in and departure gates.

She was made redundant in August 2020 while on furlough.

She felt nervous to leave the company but used the money to set up her own business, a skincare range - including a balm made using a turmeric recipe she learned in childhood.

Image source, Jasvinder Kalsi
Image caption,
Jasvinder Kalsi at a pop-up event for her business with her daughter

She says her business is still growing steadily and she's enjoyed experiencing everything from pop-up shops to celebrity events. However, when British Airways got in contact with former staff earlier this year, she was surprised to find it rekindled her interest.

"I just feel like it's a family at the end of the day, you have such a feeling of belonging," says Ms Kalsi.

Image source, Jasvinder Kalsi
Image caption,
Jasvinder Kalsi in her British Airways uniform, pictured in 2015

Her new role is now in business support at head office.

She was delighted to get the old perks back, especially the flights. "It's the chance to travel the world again, explore beautiful destinations that I probably would have never been able to do."

Her skincare business continues as a sideline, and she now donates 10% of her profits to charities that combat period poverty among women and girls.

Lots of former colleagues are returning to the airline sector, she says, and she's enjoying helping new cabin crew learn the ropes. She can pass on her experience - and also feel some of their excitement as they board the industry for the first time.

You can find business digital reporter Dougal Shaw on Twitter: @dougalshawbbc

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