Baggage handlers have been so short-staffed that entire flights have departed without luggage as the Easter travel crush peaked at Australian airports, with unions warning the pandemic-depleted aviation industry is now structurally incapable of coping with pre-Covid-like levels of travel demand.
While unloaded baggage and long queues affected travellers across the country on Thursday, unions have claimed that in Brisbane, so few service workers were available that female cleaners were sent in to clean male toilets while travellers were using them, and male cleaners into bathrooms with female patrons.
The pressures of the holiday period, Covid isolation orders, and a workforce cut and outsourced during the pandemic has led to chaotic scenes at airports across the country, just as they record hundreds of thousands of travellers in what will be their busiest periods since before the pandemic.
In Melbourne, Guardian Australia can reveal that baggage handlers working on Qantas flights but employed by international company Swissport – part of a controversial and legally contentious outsourcing decision – have been so short-staffed that some planes have been forced to leave without passengers’ luggage loaded on to the flight.
At other instances in recent days, flights have left with half of the checked-in luggage, which allows the flights to depart with less delay.
Irate passengers who appeared to be on flights affected by shortages of baggage handlers have been told they will receive their luggage in coming days.
An airport source – who did not want to be named because they are not authorised to speak to the media – told Guardian Australia that on one occasion in recent days, just 87 of the 150 bags checked on a flight were loaded on to the plane.
At times, just two baggage handlers have been available to unload a Boeing 737, and staff shortages within the companies that Qantas contracts to provide its baggage handlers are contributing to network-wide disruptions at several airports.
The source said catering deliveries have also been plagued with issues, and planes have waited up to an hour on the tarmac for food deliveries and have also taken off on medium-haul flights with no food.
“Workers are not being paid enough to work this much, and are leaving the baggage handling companies. This is not about Covid cases and workers isolating, this is about cost-cutting,” the source said.
The source claimed that baggage handler staffing for Qantas flights had become so dire in recent days that employees, expecting to be overworked over Easter, “know they’re going to be absolutely whipped so they don’t show up at all”.
“Since Qantas outsourced these jobs, it hasn’t been as visible an issue because flight demand hasn’t been the same as before Covid. But since last week, it’s been getting that busy again. These baggage handling companies are running with no fat, it’s about cutting costs,” the source said.
Transport Workers’ Union national secretary, Michael Kaine, held a press conference with outsourced Qantas workers at Sydney airport on Thursday morning, and linked the decision to outsource 2,000 baggage handling roles with the “catastrophic scenes” at airports.
“Those 2,000 workers are ready, willing and able to come back to work but Qantas is not putting them back on, and now we’re seeing this panicked response,” Kaine told ABC.
A Qantas spokesperson told Guardian Australia: “We reject the union’s claims that these disruptions are linked to the decision 18 months ago to outsource our ground handling at airports.”
She said between 20% and 50% of employees in some areas have been unable to work due to Covid-related staff shortages, and noted these issues are “happening across many areas of the aviation industry including in other airlines, in airport security screening and in other countries”.
Sydney airport was set to record 82,000 travellers passing through its domestic terminals on Thursday – its busiest day since March 2020 – with a crippled security workforce offered $1,000 bonuses if they committed to working all their shifts over the 13-day Easter break roster.
Air transport service staff – including security personnel at airports – are now recognised as critical workers in New South Wales and Victoria, which means they are exempt from the requirement to isolate for seven days if they are a close contact of a case, provided they are symptom-free.
However the relaxation of the isolation rule has not eased all issues. At times, only a fraction of the security checkpoint lanes have been open.
On Thursday morning, travellers heeding the call to allow extra time arrived at Sydney airport in the hours before its doors opened. Travellers reported queues forming outside some domestic departure halls before 4am – two hours before the airport’s curfew lifts.
Melbourne airport is set to handle 76,000 passengers a day over the Easter period, while almost 60,000 passengers were believed to have passed through Brisbane airport on Thursday.
At Brisbane airport, the United Workers Union said that so few cleaning staff were available that Securecorp, the company contracted by the airport, was asking female cleaners to clean male bathrooms without closing them to travellers.
UWU property services coordinator, Damien Davie, said female members asked to clean male bathrooms in the past had reported assault, and said “nobody should be abused, or made to feel unsafe at work, ever”.
“If Securecorp are unable to roster on enough workers to undertake their work safely, then the toilets should be closed. If Brisbane airport doesn’t like the toilets being closed, well, they need to take that up with the contractor, not force people to put their safety at risk,” he said.
“As air travel returns to where it once was and workers are forced to work around increased passengers, it is only a matter of time before the abuse and the inappropriate comments become something much worse,” Davie said.
Guardian Australia contacted Brisbane airport, but a spokesperson referred questions to the cleaning contractor, Securecorp.