British Airways suspends work of more than 30,000 employees, and Heathrow closes one runway

British Airways is to suspend more than 30,000 staff, from cabin crew to ground staff, engineers and head office employees, until the end of May under the government furlough scheme for companies hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile Heathrow has announced it will shut down one of its two runways from Monday due to the reduction in flights. A spokesperson for the UK’s biggest airport said: “Although we are seeing significantly fewer flights at the moment, Heathrow will remain open so that we can continue to play a crucial role in helping to secure vital medical goods and food for the nation during this unprecedented epidemic.”

BA, which grounded all its planes at Gatwick this week, said all suspended employees would be paid 80% of their salary under the terms of the state scheme, which caps the payout at up to £2,500 per month.

It has now reached deals with all three unions that represent its staff – Unite, GMB and the British Airline Pilots’ Association. The carrier is also encouraging its staff to join volunteering schemes.

Unite said workers would be able to divert their pension contributions, worth between 9% and 18% of earnings, into their pay for a short period of time. The BA furlough agreement runs up to 31 May.

At Gatwick and London City airport, all BA staff will be suspended after the airline stopped flying to and from both airports until the end of the virus crisis. It is still running short-haul and long-haul flights at Heathrow.

BA employs 45,000 people in total, and has struck a separate deal with its 4,000 pilots, who will take four weeks’ unpaid leave between April and May.

Unite’s national officer for aviation, Oliver Richardson, said: “Given the incredibly difficult circumstances that the entire aviation sector is facing this is as good a deal as possible for our members. The deal protects the jobs of BA staff and, as far as possible, also protects their pay.

“This is what can and should be done to protect workers during this unprecedented time for the airline sector,” he said.

BA’s parent company, International Airlines Group, also announced it had decided to reduce seat capacity further, by 90% in April and May compared with last year.

BA is involved in arranging repatriation flights for the government, which has committed £75m to bringing British nationals home. This week BA flew back more than 1,000 Britons from Peru.

The aviation industry has been hit hard by the travel restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus crisis. Thousands of staff have been temporarily laid off or are taking unpaid leave. EasyJet and Virgin Atlantic are setting up schemes for thousands of suspended crew to volunteer over the next two months with the NHS or work in supermarkets.

Staff from BA, easyJet and Norwegian served breakfast for NHS employees at the Whittington hospital in north London on Wednesday. A paediatric registrar, Priyen Shah, tweeted that he was “completely blown away by the generosity of staff” from the airlines.