‘The skies are clogged with traffic, I’ve never seen it so busy’: 48 hours at Luton Airport

Read Time:15 Minute, 4 Second

The Guardian

Audrey Eary, 57, duty free manager

I was working in a high street branch of Boots when I saw an advert for an airport perfume supervisor. I got the job and started in July 2001, back in the old, old terminal at the airport, which was tiny. A couple of months later, I was popping to one of the loos when I saw a huge crowd gathered round a TV screen. I assumed there was a football match on, but when I got closer I saw planes flying into the Twin Towers. For a while it put me off wanting to work here; airports felt tense and a real target. Thankfully, I continued.

I’ve worked my way up since then. When the store here expanded to the big walk-through shop it is today, I came back as general manager. People say once you’ve worked in travel retail, you’ll never want to return to other stores. We rarely deal with refunds or complaints, and those who pass through tend to be in a good mood, heading off on their holidays.

We’re a team of over 100 full-time staff: that’s a lot of people. The thing is, you have to walk through the shop to make it to the departure gates. We don’t have a door. That means we can’t ever shut shop for the night; we’re a 24/7 operation and need staff here constantly. During Covid, when the airport was almost empty and shops closed up, we had to call in contractors. They erected a fence through the entire shop while our staff were furloughed. It had been a really good year for us in 2019 – the team had worked so hard – so seeing the shop shut down and locked away was really quite upsetting. It was an emotional day when that fence finally came down again. And we returned with every single one of our staff: none made redundant, or lost to the virus.

Reverend Canon Liz Hughes, 63, chaplain

As a chaplain, I offer spiritual or pastoral support to anyone in need, and wearing my hi-vis I spend a lot of time helping solve problems for passengers. I’m a pair of hands to be called to any situation; someone who can drop everything to come and focus on helping people. That might mean supporting a staff member who is struggling, or stepping in when a customer urgently needs something. Of course, I look like a vicar, too. People stop me if they need religious guidance. Once a man stopped me, telling me he thought he had just said goodbye to his elderly mother for the final time. I listened to him as we walked slowly together through the terminal.

My flock here at the airport changes every day: there are both passengers and an ever-changing airport workforce. We have a new prayer room used by people of all faiths – both staff and passengers – but most regularly by the Muslim taxi drivers who work the rank outside the terminal.

During Covid, I couldn’t offer support face-to-face or identify those who needed me. That was difficult. When I returned, I realised many colleagues had been lost to Covid, and staff didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. So people wrote the names of those who’d passed away on ribbons and tied them to a tree we purchased. We’ll do it every year now, I think, in memory of those who didn’t make it.

Nic Gibson, 28, senior first officer

‘Air traffic control slots are tight in many places, radio frequencies are heaving’: Nic Gibson. Photograph: Jooney Woodward/The Observer

It’s been a tough few years to be working in the aviation industry. When Brexit first came to fruition, we had mutual agreements between the UK and European authorities. We were unsure what to expect, but actually it didn’t prove much of an issue. Our pilot licences were accepted the same; there’s no need for visas to travel. Covid, however, was a slightly bigger problem. We were the first industry to take the hit, and the last one to recover. It’s been a challenging two and a half years. At first, things just slowed down. Then for a summer and a half I was furloughed and stopped flying completely. Legally, you have to do three takeoffs and landings every 90 days to keep your licence valid. I did these on a simulator through that time, with all our planes grounded.

Now there’s a whole new challenge, I see it all over Europe. There’s been a change in passenger mindset now things are opening up. People who’ve been locked up for years are desperate to get away, putting pressure on infrastructure and – whether inside airports or with airlines – staffing levels. The skies, meanwhile, are clogged up with traffic; I’ve never seen it so busy. Air traffic control slots are tight in many places, radio frequencies are heaving.

I’ve been a pilot now for seven years, having first learned to fly at Oxford Aviation Academy. That’s where I met my wife, and from there we both joined different airlines. I was sent to Munich, she went to Strasbourg; I transferred to Bristol while she headed to Toulouse. After a few more moves each, we both ended up working for the same airline in Luton. In four flights’ time, though, I’ll graduate from senior first officer to captain. Then, I think, we could fly together once for the novelty.

What happens behind the scenes in aviation feels quite secretive. But so much is going on to try to keep flights safely taking off and landing on time. It’s why I try to be open and honest with passengers when we face problems. Of course travel and delays can be stressful, so if they know just how much effort is being made to get them moving – which it always is, with me at least – they tend to find it reassuring.

Michelle Mitchell, 58, cleaner

‘After my shift, I’ll often go to the crew room and just start dancing’: Michelle Mitchell. Photograph: Jooney Woodward/The Observer

Us cleaners see everything here at the airport: the good, the bad and the ugly. Still, somebody has to do it. I’ll spare you some of the grim details of what we can find ourselves confronted with, although I once opened a door to a disabled toilet to clean and found myself face to face with a naked man – who’d left the door unlocked – shaving in the mirror.

I worked in a London hotel as a cleaner and chambermaid before I became a supervisor. I do enjoy cleaning a lot, and the job here is never-ending. As soon as you’ve done a corner of the terminal and moved elsewhere, you turn back and see – once again – it’s a little dirty. When people leave their rubbish just lying around, it’s obviously really frustrating. There are bins! But you just get on with it. After my shift, I’ll often go to the crew room and just start dancing. When I reach retirement age, my plan is to return home to Jamaica.

During lockdowns and the pandemic I was always here. The deeper cleans meant more work, yes, but it was quieter – meaning fewer people making a mess – which made our job easier. We’re back to normal now. It’s just so busy. The 12-hour days are long: I’m up at 4.20am. But whatever happens I keep on smiling… After all, I’m a Jamaican.

Radoslaw ‘Radek’ Paszkiewicz, 36, security

‘I did a trial with Luton Town FC in 2012 – sadly I didn’t make it’: Radoslaw Paszkiewicz. Photograph: Jooney Woodward/The Observer

I’ve lived here for the last 10 years. Back in Poland, I played football professionally. When my wife and I decided to move to the UK, we closed our eyes, and she placed her finger on a UK map. Wherever it landed, we agreed, would become our new home. The result? Luton. I did a trial with Luton Town FC in 2012 – sadly I didn’t make it. But this was our home, so I found work at the airport.

A lot of training is involved: what to do in all sorts of emergencies, how to handle dangerous weapons and prohibited substances. I’ve had a few passengers trying to pass through with tasers recently, which obviously they shouldn’t. Everyone here is treated the same, no matter your status. Many years ago a famous supermodel came through and had to be stopped because of her attitude. In the end, security got involved to ensure passenger safety.

Maryna Nikitenko, 42, Ukrainian arrivals support

‘Before the invasion I lived in central eastern Ukraine in a city called Dnipro. I was forced to leave because of the war’: Maryna Nikitenko. Photograph: Jooney Woodward/The Observer

When Ukrainians arrive in Luton by plane, they come here to this corner of the airport. There is often fear in their eyes, and they don’t know what to do or expect. We calm them down in a language they understand and recognise; we reassure them there is help, for now, and that the UK is a kind country. We give them directions, or introduce them to the sponsor families picking them up, and advise on the documents they’ll need. Most just want to know where they can find a job, which is typically Ukrainian. Often we’ve had 100 arriving in a day, but recently the number seems to have been lower.

Really, though, our job is to welcome people. I know myself what they’re going through. Before the invasion I lived in central eastern Ukraine in a city called Dnipro. I was forced to leave because of the war and arrived here in April to live with a sponsor family.

I worked as a recruiter in Ukraine and being here – with all the announcements, bright lights and people passing through – is very different to my old office. Still, getting people to their destination is what I’ve always done. Before, it was all about careers. Now it’s just a little more literal.

Laura Stringer, 33, operations

Our team handles the day-to-day running of the airport. We’re the first point of contact for airport staff, whatever they need, anything happening inside or out of the terminal. We’re in a control room with a wall of CCTV and screens blinking statistics at us. If delays are clocking up due to baggage, boarding or disembarking, we’re the ones working out what’s wrong, then trying to fix it.

It’s our job to update all the airport screens when a cancellation occurs. We put a message out on the Tannoy. Before that we’ve liaised with staff to prepare them for what’s coming. Teamwork keeps us going – all we can do is communicate as clearly as possible.

Destiny Chance, 19, bar and restaurant worker

‘I try to go to bed around 5pm, which isn’t exactly easy when it’s boiling hot in the height of summer’: Destiny Chance. Photograph: Jooney Woodward/The Observer

I’ve only been working here for two months but I’ve learned the ropes quickly. It’s really, really busy. We open up at 3am, and close after the last flight has departed. Depending on my shift, I try to go to bed around 5pm, which isn’t exactly easy when it’s boiling hot in the height of summer. We have to come past security every day, which means full searches and the same rules as passengers. On one of my first shifts I had to throw a whole bottle of my favourite perfume away because I’d forgotten about the rules on liquids. Now I’ve learned the tricks: small lip balm and mini fragrance in a clear bag; never wear a belt, it’s not worth the hassle.

Even if you’re shattered, the buzz here wakes you up completely. We end up chatting to customers about their holiday plans or where they’ve travelled from. Sometimes, I get a little jealous. We also get lots of hen do’s and stag groups coming in, excited about what awaits them. When there are four or five in at once the atmosphere is crazy.

People do like to drink at airports: lots fancy a pint for breakfast, although these days they usally tend to know their limits. This will be my first summer here – in September I start university. If I’m lucky, I might even fit a holiday in.

Esam Elsify, 49, passenger services

‘I treat every passenger like they’re family’: Esam Elsify. Photograph: Jooney Woodward/The Observer

Today I’m a passenger service assistant in the terminal. I keep customers happy and make sure the airport operation runs smoothly. In any situation – from missing bag to heart attack, flood to power cut or fire – we have in place a contingency. I work 12-hour days, four on, four off. Two are days, two are lates. That’s an intense working pattern. And when you’re here, it’s non-stop. At the moment, we’ve got nearly 30,000 passengers passing through on a daily basis. I might only walk five metres through the terminal, but I’ll be stopped by 15 people each with different problems and questions. One will say: “My mum arrived an hour ago, speaks no English, and hasn’t shown up.” Another has left their handbag on the aeroplane. There are lost passports and kids; people too early and late. Do I know which hotels are nicest?

I was born in Cairo and after national service I worked in hotels, as an interpreter by the pyramids, and for travel companies. Through work I met the love of my life, Dawn, who was visiting from England. I’m Muslim and was married, and she is a conservative Christian – but love is love. I came to Luton in 2000, and then we got married.

I treat every passenger like they’re family. When the terminal didn’t have open shops and restaurants, I drove back to my house, picked up food and drinks and shared them with a confused group of Moroccans. I pointed out to two adult doctors that their father – in a wheelchair – was having a stroke. I heard another man mutter the final words Muslims say before they die in Arabic. I pulled him from his wheelchair and gave him CPR. Thankfully, he survived. That’s the greatest feeling.

Abid Hussain, 48, vehicle maintenance

I’ve always had a passion for cars, since childhood. Then one day, while still at school, I saw an advert for apprentice vehicle technicians at the airport in the local paper. I left school in June, and started here on an apprenticeship the following September. I’ve worked in the same hangar for 32 years.

Anything owned by the airport with a motor is our team’s responsibility to look after. That’s lawnmowers, tractors and JCBs to fire engines, cars and buses – roughly 400 vehicles in total. Each comes in for routine maintenance and servicing year on year, but things also just do go wrong, plenty of unexpected turbulence. We don’t just do the basics in mechanics, there’s all sorts to contend with: hydraulics, pneumatics, electrics, welding, bodywork.

I’m something of an oracle for other, younger, technicians here, with my knowledge of the older parts of the fleet specifically. That’s the way I like it. I’ve had five apprentices under me since I started, and I help out at the local college. To me, that feels important. I want to teach the way I was taught, pass my knowledge on the way I received it.

Anthony Hatch, 52, air traffic control

‘It’s never-ending. Except during Covid when our usual 500 aircraft a day here became 20 or 30’: Anthony Hatch. Photograph: Jooney Woodward/The Observer

As a kid, I wanted to be in the sky; I grew up right next to Birmingham Airport. Later, I worked in air traffic control to pay my way through flying school – that’s how I got my commercial pilot’s licence. Now I work up in the control tower, keeping aircraft moving and safe. The thing is, I was enjoying this work so much that I never wanted to leave it. That’s not to say we don’t face challenges – our primary priority is safety.

It’s never-ending. Except during Covid when our usual 500 aircraft a day here became 20 or 30. Keeping the whole team trained was important. We didn’t see any ghost flights here with airlines keeping their slots, but we did have crews taking off and landing to keep in practice.

I rarely work nights these days, but that’s my favourite time to be here in the tower – looking out over the airfield and surveying the skies, scanning the horizon.

July 24, 2022 at 11:48AM Michael Segalov

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