I have just returned to America after 3 weeks in Britain. Since my return just two days ago, I have not been able to get the old, familiar, folk standard, “Where Have all the Flowers Gone” out of my mind. The celebrated folk singer Pete Seeger wrote the song about flowers about 60 years ago, and it was very popular and famous when I was passing through the 1960s. Seeger wrote it as an anti-war song, that being the era of the Vietnam War with all the turmoil that caused. The crux of the antiwar message is in four lines: “Where have all the soldiers gone? / Gone to graveyards every one / Where have all the graveyards gone? / Covered with flowers every one.”
But in the version of the song that repeats itself in my head, “flowers” becomes “staff,” and the song loses its anti-war meaning and becomes a lament over the many rips and discontinuities in the social fabric wrought by the pandemic. This seems particularly true of the socio/economic concept of work. And the changing meaning of this is manifested in Britain primarily by chaos at British airports.
The reason for this chaos is attributed generally by the British press and the UK government as “staff shortages.” The essence of efficiency at airports is moving people through ticket gates, boarding gates, security gates, quickly, smoothly, and free of stress, and the most important component is a sufficiently large staff to keep all those gates open and people moving though them. But suddenly British airports have become woefully understaffed, and thus extremely chaotic and stressful. My own experience led me to wonder where have all the staffers gone. Why have all those employees who were there to provide that efficiency before the pandemic suddenly disappeared.
I had heard some of the horror stories before I left the US—hours-long waits in extremely long lines, multiple and often surprise cancellations, etc. but I tended to discount them as exaggeration. My experience trying to exit Britain at Heathrow Terminal 5 on Tuesday demonstrated to me that I had badly underestimated the impact of “staff shortages.”
As the pandemic subsides, many American companies are trying to persuade their employees, or some of them at least, to return to the office for much of if not all the work week. Across the board, employees are resisting, wanting to remain working at home
To begin, I’ll acknowledge that last Tuesday, June 21st, was not the most propitious day to be exiting Britain. The Railroad Unions had declared a series of strikes, over wages I believe, and most of the British railway system would be prevented from operating that day and throughout the rest of the week. There was serious uncertainty as to whether a traveler could get to the airport. But several thousand travelers did manage to reach Heathrow Terminal 5, as some transport was still running. For those travelers, the problem was not getting to the airport, the problem was getting through the airport, to those gates on the other side from which the flights depart.
I arrived at the Terminal early and was not allowed to check in for 30 minutes. I assume this delay was to control traffic so that the check-in counters would not be overwhelmed, but it was a discontinuity that proved significant. Checking in and dropping my bags went reasonably efficiently. But when I reached the security line, I realised that the lost 30 minutes would cost me at least twice as many more. It was the longest line I have ever seen. Ultimately, it took almost 2 hours to complete the security transit to the other side. By the time I was through security, I had time only to head for the gate from which my flight was to depart in about 40 minutes.
When I arrived after about the first hour on the departure side, long before I actually exited the security transit, I knew the problem, “staff shortages.” The security services had managed to muster only four staff, who were operating only two security lines where carry on bags were checked, of the 5 or 6 that are available. It was a river of people trying to flow through a three-inch pipe.
But neither my story that day, not the collective stories of all the other travelers who went through to the other side and caught their flights out of the country, are the real story. That is reserved for the question of the title of this piece: where have all the staff gone? In my specific case, it was the staff of the border security agency that were missing. The women and men who watch as the bags go through the X-ray machine, and help travelers go through the machines that check for weapons. The four staff members that had appeared were, by the time I reached that area of the line, clearly tired and cranky, and impatient with awkward travelers.
It would seem, from my very sketchy research, that the organisation called the Border Force, a part of the Home Office, would be responsible for the security checks at airports. But it is not clear to me whether the employees are private of government, and if they are unionised. It is even more unclear to me why the Home Office cannot muster sufficient employees to keep the traveler flow going toward through a system that has now been providing efficient service at airports for many years now. Why are “staff shortages” suddenly gumming up what was a successful and efficient system of departure and British airports.
My preliminary research leads to a variety of explanations, not all consistent with each other, and some which are inexplicable. Many of these appear unique to the United Kingdom. Though I have not travelled much during the pandemic, I have flown across the US several times in the past two years and found no such problem. While the pandemic did produce trouble for American travelers and flight staff, but it was mainly a function of pandemic stress and frustration and was primarily manifest by aggressive behaviour by passengers toward members of the cabin crew, mainly an aggressive response and often outright refusal to wear masks or follow social distancing guidelines. A number of travelers were arrested for attacking cabin crew who were trying to enforce requirements aimed at limiting the spread of Covid in planes and airports. This is certainly not a problem of “staff shortages” (in fact some of the arrested would probably argue that it was a problem of “staff overreach”).
From my own experience, however, I am convinced that the trouble at British airports is because of serious changes in the outlook and the behaviour of the staff of the security agencies. This is probably true for airports on most developed countries, so there is no reason why such chaos might not crop up in the US and the rest of the developed world. The main explanations I have found run as follows:
- Covid—was unavoidable in the ranks of the highly exposed security staff, and the security business was believed to be very vulnerable impeding the ability to recruit replacements. This seems a reasonable conclusion but cannot stand alone as responsible for staff shortages as there are surely remedies available.
- Brexit—this would certainly be the favourite of a couple of friends, who want to blame Brexit for everything going wrong in the UK today. It is said that many workers from the EU have not come back after the pandemic has subsided, and this is undoubtedly a factor, but hardly the entire explanation for the disappearance of what seems the entire staff of the airport security agencies.
- Furloughing—evidently many security officers were put on Furlough which gave them time and incentive to rethink their career objectives. Some, it seems (maybe many) concluded they could find a better job, better pay, less stress, in another field. As in the US—which has seen less of the staff shortage problem, this migration to other professions is adding to the “great resignation” phenomenon that ids buffeting our societies.
- Other Factors–there are several other phenomena that might drive travel security officers to look for another profession. They seem less important to me, but I list them for the record. They include the high cost to security officers to improve their skills, the compulsory training required to maintain those skills, the opportunity the Pandemic offered to work temporarily in a different profession and wish to remain there, the backlog of processing licenses for security positions, and finally the changed expectations of finding different employment in the new workplace.
All this leads to the conclusion that the pandemic has inspired a changed outlook toward work among workers in most of the developed societies. Societal discontinuities such as chaos at British airports should be expected and accepted as transitory as the labour market digests the socioeconomic changes in the concept of work that the pandemic has caused. These are not only in the security agencies that determine the efficiency of passenger flows at airports, but in many aspects of employment. In the US, for example, there remains a great change in the place of work that has yet to work itself out. As the pandemic subsides, many American companies are trying to persuade their employees, or some of them at least, to return to the office for much of if not all the work week. Across the board, employees are resisting, wanting to remain working at home. Questions about the impact on productivity, the hallmark of an efficient and successful economy will need to be worked out between the companies and the workers. ‘
We are likely in for a rough flight whether in an airplane or just retooling out economies in the next few years. Chaos may visit US airports and other US industries as these societal wrinkles caused by our responses to the pandemic are smoothed out. In other words, we are not at the end of our inquiry as to where have all the staff gone.