The loss of 99 jobs at an airline interiors factory in Llanelli has been described as “devastating” for workers, and marks the latest blow for the Welsh aviation sector in a gloomy 13 months.

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc with international travel, grounding flights and wiping out the busy tourist season for airlines and airports.

Analysis by the Airport Operators Association (AOA) found that just 14.2 million passengers travelled through UK airports between July and September last year, which was the lowest total since 1975.

Across the year as a whole, passenger numbers were down 75 per cent compared with 2019.

Cardiff has suffered one of the largest percentage decreases in passenger numbers among UK airports during the coronavirus pandemic.

Just 8,400 passengers travelled through the airport in October, 94 per cent fewer than during the same month in 2019.

The drop in demand for global air travel has had severe consequences for Welsh firms in aviation supply chains, prompting manufacturers across the nation to announce layoffs and closures in a bid to minimise losses.

Aerospace manufacturing and maintenance employed more than 11,000 people in Wales in 2019.

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In Llanelli, the AIM Altitude factory in Dafen will reportedly close down at the end of May as part of a consolidation process by its Bournemouth-based owner.

AIM Altitude designs and makes cabin interiors for aircraft, and supplies firms like Airbus and Boeing. The company’s website claims it made a £100 million turnover in 2018/19, before the pandemic struck.

Llanelli MP Nia Griffith said the 99 workers at the AIM Altitude factory would be “devastated that it has come to this,” despite what she called “forceful arguments” made by trade union and staff representatives.

She said “everyone can see the [aviation] sector has been very badly hit” by the pandemic, and argued recovery would have been possible had government stepped in with a specific package of support aimed at protecting the industry.

“Without such a deal, I fear many other jobs in the aerospace and aviation industries will also be at risk,” she added.

Thousands of UK aviation jobs lost

The figures for the aviation sector make for stark reading. Recent analysis commissioned by the Unite trade union found the UK had lost more than twice as many jobs in aviation and related industries during the coronavirus pandemic than France or Germany.

Since last February, some 61,973 UK jobs have been lost across aviation and aerospace as firms slashed their workforces in response to the virus crisis.

That UK-wide sum included 12,000 jobs at British Airways, 3,150 at Virgin Atlantic, 3,000 at Rolls-Royce and 2,200 at Airbus. Germany and France have lost 28,964 and 20,409 jobs respectively, according to the report by research firm Acuity Analysis.

Unite’s assistant general secretary for transport, Diana Holland, said it had been “heart-breaking” to see so many aviation jobs lost “when we know that demand will come back”.

She said “a staggering number of workers in the sector are now unemployed” and pointed to higher rates of employee support in France and Germany as evidence that “a different approach from governments actually saves these jobs”.

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Researchers found the French government had provided 26,000 euro (£22,300) of support for each aviation and aerospace job, with the German state supplying 23,000 euro (£19,700). In the UK, they calculated the equivalent figure to be 12,000 euro (£10,300).

Unite said the aviation sector was facing a “final call” for government support or may not recover “at the speed nor the scale of its competitors”.

But in Westminster, the UK’s transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has repeatedly defended the British government’s backing of the aviation sector, saying that taxpayer-funded support during the pandemic had reached £7.2 billion.

Firms cut jobs to secure long-term futures

The slump in aircraft manufacturing slowed as 2020 went on but still remained severely weakened, analysis by the Confederation for British Industry (CBI) found last year.

The CBI said the sector’s struggles were highlighted by aerospace giant Airbus’ decision that 1,700 jobs would go at its sites in Broughton, North Wales and in Filton, near Bristol.

When it announced those job cuts last June, Airbus said it had been forced to "adapt its global workforce and resize its commercial aircraft activity" as a result of the “unprecedented crisis” of the pandemic, which had caused its commercial aircraft business activity to drop by 40 per cent.

Following the announcement, Unite said the Airbus factory in Broughton was "one of Wales key anchor companies and is central to the future prosperity of the Welsh economy".

Cuts to the workforce there would have “a devastating impact on the aerospace sector in Wales,” Unite Wales regional secretary Peter Hughes said at the time.

Since then, the union’s members at Broughton have taken radical action to try and save jobs.

In February, Unite members backed a deal, negotiated between the union and Airbus, which will see a reduction in the working week of 5-10 per cent for a short period of time.

The union said the agreement would remove the possibility of compulsory redundancies and provide a roadmap to a resumption of full-time working once the Covid-19 crisis recedes.

Mr Hughes said “unprecedented times require creative solutions” and praised the workers’ “selfless decision” and “collective solidarity”.

But union pressure has not been enough to resist aviation job losses elsewhere in Wales. In August, French-owned firm Safran Seats announced redundancies at its sites in Cwmbran and Camberley (Surrey), having cited the economic pressures of the pandemic as forcing the company to “take steps now to protect [its] longer-term existence”. A reported 155 jobs were lost at the Cwmbran factory which made seats for aircraft.

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British Airways launched a consultation process last May for three of its South Wales sites, prompting fears more than 1,000 workers could face the axe at its facilities in Blackwood, Cardiff Airport and Llantrisant.

The airline also announced an intention to rehire remaining staff on new terms – a policy dubbed “fire and rehire” by critics including Unite, which warned at the time the policy could cause “severe and permanent damage” to the workforce.

The union told The National this week that the policy had been withdrawn after Unite’s “high profile leverage campaign” forced British Airways “to return to the negotiating table”.

British Airways said it had implemented "new ways of working" at its sites to "mitigate as many job losses as possible". The "vast majority" of those workers who left the company did so through voluntary redundancy, the firm added.

Hope on the horizon?

Amid much misery, there is now some glimmer of hope for the aviation sector, given the success of the domestic vaccination programme and early discussions around the resumption of foreign travel – although it will be some time before an uptake in tourism begins to benefit supply lines for aircraft.

And the arrival at Cardiff Airport of low-cost carrier Wizz Air offers a rare chance for optimism. The airport has been thrown a lifeline by the Hungarian airline, which is launching nine new routes to popular holiday destinations around the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands.

“Significant investment” by Wizz will create 40 direct jobs and more than 250 indirect jobs, the airline has claimed – welcome news for the airport, which needed a £42 million Welsh Government rescue grant last month to secure its long-term viability.

Cardiff Airport’s interim chief executive Spencer Birns has described the Wizz Air announcement as “fantastic news for Wales” and predicted the airline’s routes would be popular with “many people living in Wales [who] are craving a well-deserved holiday after such a challenging year”.

The challenge now lies in the speed of the recovery, for it will take far longer for the manufacturing and maintenance firms in the supply chains to feel the benefit of a return to international travel and tourism.

Jonathan Hawkings, director of policy at the ADS (Aeropace, Defence, Security and Space) business group, said the aviation sector faced "a long road to recovery".

He said government support and collaboration – at a UK and devolved level – was key to ensuring the future prosperity of firms in the sector.

“Early confirmation of a restart in international travel will build confidence in the industry that Welsh aerospace businesses can begin to recover from the crisis, and to invest in the future technologies and capabilities that will be needed to compete in this international market," he said.

All eyes then on Westminster for the proposed May 17 return of international travel.