Desperate passengers resorted to crawling through hatches in the baggage reclaim area at one of Britain’s busiest airports after they lost patience with hours of delays and ‘chaos’.
In a graphic illustration of the problems gripping air travel since thousands of staff were sacked during the Covid pandemic, an undercover reporter working at Manchester Airport was told that fed-up travellers trying to get air-side to retrieve their bags ‘happens all the time’.
The investigation by Channel 4 Dispatches – broadcast tonight – also exposes how a whistle-blower claimed pilots with one budget airline feel pressured to fly longer hours while suffering fatigue.
While a UK Border Force insider warns that on current staffing levels, lengthy queues at passport control will exceed three hours if passenger numbers reach pre-pandemic levels.
The alarming revelations come after months of disruption which has seen a staggering 1.7million people flying out of or into the UK impacted by cancellations within 48 hours of their flight.
Desperate passengers resorted to crawling through hatches in the baggage reclaim area at Manchester Airport
Video footage shows a passenger having crawled through the hatch after losing patience with hours of delays and ‘chaos’
The full footage will be shown on Airport Chaos Undercover: Dispatches which is on Channel 4 tonight at 8pm
The reporter working as a baggage handler for Swissport was told passengers resorting to trying to get airside and retrieve their luggage ‘happens all the time’, causing ‘fights’.
They branded the situation ‘f*****g chaos’, saying the cause was that they had ‘literally no staff’.
Physically demanding work that would typically be covered by two or more people was performed by individual handlers, according to the programme, with conditions at shifts starting at 3am described as ‘absolutely brutal’.
Meanwhile a Wizz Air pilot whistle-blower told the programme about what they feel is pressure to fly longer hours.
Speaking anonymously, the pilot said: ‘There is a shortage of crew and to avoid cancelling flights they encourage staff to work harder.
‘There is pressure for us to help out by flying on our days off. You can report sick if you are fatigued but you will lose financially if you do.’
The Home Office today said the warning about queues at passport control exceeding three hours was ‘false’, with over nine out of ten passengers queuing for less than 30 minutes in July.
A spokeswoman said Border Force ‘works hard to ensure it has the right level of resources to check that passengers are compliant with our measures and to maintain border security as travel continues to open’.
It had recently recruited 800 new staff, she added.
Last month the Daily Mail revealed how Wizz Air’s chief executive Jozsef Varadi came under fire for encouraging airline staff to work through fatigue.
At the time he said: ‘We are all fatigued but sometimes it is required to take the extra mile.’
An undercover reporter was told that fed-up travellers trying to get air-side to retrieve their bags ‘happens all the time’
Wizz Air racked up losses of £550million for the 12 months to the end of March – although revenue more than doubled to £1.4billion.
Martin Chalk, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association, told Dispatches someone who was ‘fatigued’ was ‘not in a fit state to fly an aeroplane’.
Research for the programme claims almost seven in ten Wizz Air flights leaving the UK last month were delayed.
Swissport, the baggage-handling company used by many airlines, sacked over half of its 6,000 baggage handling staff during the pandemic.
In a bid to speed up counter-terrorist and accreditation checks on new recruits, ministers have ordered the vetting centre to prioritise airport staff to help plug the gaps quicker.
Swissport told the programme it was ‘sorry for our part in the disruption some people have experienced at Manchester Airport’.
‘We are doing everything we can to mitigate delays for passengers, including hiring more than 4,100 people since January,’ it added.
Wizz Air said ‘the safety and wellbeing of our passengers and crew is always our top priority’.
It said it operated an ‘industry-leading fatigue management system’ which was ‘regularly reviewed and monitored’ by aviation regulators.
A reporter was told passengers resorting to trying to get airside and retrieve their luggage ‘happens all the time’
Wizz Air told the Daily Mail it would ‘never compromise on safety’, adding that it had hired 400 pilots in the past nine months.
In a statement it said there were ‘no financial penalties’ for pilots if they reported that they were fatigued.
‘If our pilots report fatigue and alternative pilots cannot be found, then the flight will be cancelled,’ it said. ‘We will not hesitate to cancel flights whenever necessary to guarantee safety.’
In response to the claims, a Department for Transport (DfT) spokesman said: ‘We’ve done everything within our power to support the aviation industry, including providing £8billion to protect jobs during the pandemic, but it’s now for the sector itself to make passengers can get away on their well-deserved summer holidays.’
The department said action had included accelerated security vetting checks, as well as a temporary amnesty on airport slots to allow airlines to plan ahead and prevent last-minute cancellations.
The DfT spokesman added: ‘These measures are clearly working and flight cancellations have recently fallen back to their 2019 levels following the changes which are providing passengers with more certainty.’
In a statement to the Daily Mail, Swissport stressed that delays were caused by ‘disruption from multiple sources’ and not just ground handlers.
Passengers queue for check-in at Manchester Airport’s Terminal 2 for flights on Saturday as they go on summer holidays
Photographs taken behind-the-scenes of baggage chaos at Manchester Airport, which were revealed in April
Headcount at Manchester Airport had seen a net increase of 415 this year, it added.
The firm stressed it did not work with airlines which had experienced disruption at Heathrow or Gatwick.
Manchester Airport – whose managing director, Karen Smart, resigned in April following weeks of chaos for travellers – stressed that the undercover filming was done around a month ago.
It said the first week of the school summer holidays had seen 95 per cent of passengers pass through security in under half an hour.
Ground handling including check in and baggage is the responsibility of individual airlines, it added.
Airport Chaos Undercover: Dispatches is on Channel 4 tonight at 8pm