Unite, the UK’s principal aviation union, which represents thousands of workers employed throughout Heathrow airport, is warning that Heathrow Airport Limited’s (HAL) contingency plans during the ongoing strike action have failed to provide adequate cover for its in-house fire service, potentially endangering passengers and staff.


Fire and Rehire


Members of Unite, employed by HAL, are undertaking their fourth day of targeted strike action today (18th December) in a dispute over HAL’s decision to fire and rehire its entire workforce. Workers face permanent cuts of up to 25 per cent. Two days strike is part of a 48 hour stoppage which began yesterday (Thursday 17 December).


The targeted strike action involves firefighters, engineers, campus security, baggage operations, central terminal operations and landside and airside operations.


Unite has complied a dossier about serious safety concerns. The greatest concerns involve response times by the firefighters HAL has brought in under its contingency plans during the disputes.


Fire concerns


HAL has two fire stations covering the east and west side of the airport. Under European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) rules, the fire service must respond to an incident within three minutes (with a target of two minutes).


It is understood that during the strikes it is only the fire station on the west of the airport that is operational, raising major concerns about deployment times to the eastern side of the airport.


Temporary crews


Unite has further concerns that the temporary fire crews operating during the strike have not received sufficient training in order to safely operate a number of items of highly specialised and unique equipment.


The specialised equipment includes rescue stairs, the ALP (aerial ladder platform), the fire 15 tunnel vehicle and the hose layer. Some of this equipment is so specialist that not all of HAL’s firefighters have been trained in its safe and efficient operation.


Deep concerns


Unite regional co-ordinating officer Wayne King said: “Unite has deep concerns that the way that the fire service is being operated at Heathrow during the strikes does not meet key safety standards,


“Unite has thousands of members at Heathrow who are not part of the current strike action and HAL has entirely failed in its duty to consult with safety reps over its ‘contingency plans'.”


Contingency planning


Unite has been raising concerns about HAL’s entire contingency planning since before the dispute began on 1 December, including competency issues across a multitude of services, but has been met with a brick wall and unsubstantiated assurances that all safety measures have been covered.


HAL has a legal duty to consult with Unite health and safety representatives. To date no consultation has taken place, despite continual requests by Unite.


HSE inaction


Unite’s concerns have been further heightened by the inability/unwillingness of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to inspect or investigate the safe operation of the airport, despite several detailed complaints to HSE by Unite.  


To date the HSE has not reviewed Heathrow’s contingency plans, or attempted to enforce HAL’s breaches of Unite's safety reps right to be consulted under health and safety law.


Initial concerns


Unite initially raised its concerns with the HSE principal inspector who has responsibility for Heathrow. The union was told that HSE had not even undertaken a “desktop” review of HAL’s plans and added: “I must also advise you, that in the light of the pandemic and all the work it has created for HSE this issue is unlikely to be assigned a high priority.”


Concerned by this response, as well as HAL's lack of consultation with safety reps, Unite contacted the HSE at the organisation’s most senior level and was told by HSE that "the team have considered your letter and have concluded that, at the present time, no further action is required”.


Official reporting line


Unite also submitted its concerns in detail on 1 December 2020 via an official HSE trade union complaints line at the request of HSE, and has received no response to date. Unite is presently contacting HSE around this lack of response through what should be an effective channel for trade unions to raise concerns, as well as the specific deeply worrying situation regarding the fire service.


Workers in the dark


Mr King added: “Keeping workers in the dark about safety and having your fingers crossed that nothing goes wrong is not a recipe for success.


“Unite is very disappointed and alarmed that despite its repeated urging, the HSE has not thought it necessary even to check the paperwork for the safety arrangements of one of the world’s busiest airports during this dispute.”




Notes to editors:


During the coronavirus crisis Unite is working to keep workers and the public safe, to defend jobs and to protect incomes.


For media enquiries ONLY please contact Unite senior communications officer Barckley Sumner on 07802 329235 or 0203 371 2067.


Email: [email protected]


Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest union with members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.