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‘The job kills any life really’: secrets of a UK airport security officer

The Guardian logo The Guardian 14/05/2022 Joanna Partridge
Photograph: Reuters/Alamy © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Reuters/Alamy

Antisocial work hours, long days on your feet, and dealing with impatient and sometimes unpleasant passengers. Such is the life of an airport security officer.

Their role is to check passengers and their luggage before boarding, and they are key to ensuring safety and the smooth running of an airport. But the work is not well paid, and airports are struggling to recruit enough people to staff the X-ray machines and metal detectors as air travel rebounds after Covid.

As airports get busier and the queues to get through security get longer, those on the frontline are under stress.

Related: UK airlines and airports scramble to hire staff as travel takes off again

Now a security officer who has worked for several years in the terminal at Stansted airport, located north-east of London, has come forward to share the behind-the-scenes realities of the job. The Guardian is protecting his identity because this is his only employment.

He currently works two long shifts a week, mostly at the weekends, with very early starts to manage the morning peak departure times.

“They can’t seem to keep people. But it is difficult work. Generally we start work at 4am, so getting up at 2am to get yourself into work is a killer. Of course you have to go to sleep early, so it kills any life really,” the man, who is in his 50s, told the Guardian.

He earns £14 an hour and takes home about £1,200 a month.

Manchester airport was among the UK airports with large queues after schools closed for Easter. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA © Provided by The Guardian Manchester airport was among the UK airports with large queues after schools closed for Easter. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Working in a team, a group of colleagues are based around an X-ray machine. Passengers are greeted and then asked to take their belongings out of their pockets, to put them and their bags into a plastic tray to be screened.

The passengers pass through a metal detector and if required, they are searched.

Each security officer is only allowed to sit at the X-ray machine, monitoring the screen for a maximum of 20 minutes. Yet this is often the only time during their shift that a security officer is able to sit down, bar brief tea breaks.

“The issue we have is lack of staff,” he said. “The last couple of times I have been in, we’ve got to the end of our shift and there has been no one to take over from us. We’ve had to close the doors to the lane and just walk away.”

“It was particularly bad a couple of weeks ago. We left the machine full of bags, loads of people queueing to get in, we had to just shut the machine and walk away from it,” he said, adding that managers had to scramble to find workers to take over.

The security officer believes a current lack of staff prevents Stansted from opening up enough security lanes, leading to long queues, or “snakes” of passengers, and more people missing their flights.

“When the machine is full up with trays that need to be searched, the machine stops, and no one goes through, which stops the whole procedure and the snakes get incredibly long. You can hear people calling out from the lanes; they are missing their flight. Passengers are quite often in tears, which isn’t nice.”

About half of the terminal security officers at Stansted took voluntary redundancy during the pandemic, as part of plans by the airport’s owner, Manchester Airports Group, to reduce its costs while planes remained grounded by Covid travel restrictions.

The group is planning to hire about 300 people to fill vacancies, with ads for new recruits on the London underground, urging them to “Make an impact on countless passengers”, while promising that all training is included and no experience is required.

Among the incentives designed to appeal to prospective workers is an 80% discount on bus and train travel to the airport, as well as a free bus from north London for employees starting work before public transport begins.

A spokesperson for London Stansted said the airport had received an “excellent” response to its recruitment drive, with many applicants already going through vetting and training. They said the airport was “confident we will have the terminal security officers we require to run a full flight schedule this summer.”

The security officer believes he and his colleagues would feel more valued if they earned more for carrying out their important work.

“They could fill all the jobs tomorrow if they paid people more money. It all comes down to the fact they won’t pay more wages. They have decided it is a low-paid job,” he said. “If I could, I would leave tomorrow.”

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