The managing director of Manchester airport has quit after weeks of chaos in which thousands of passengers have missed their flights because of queues up to seven hours long.
Karen Smart stepped down on Tuesday after coming under fierce criticism from airport staff as well as angry travellers. She had been in the post for two years, during a turbulent time in aviation history.
“Having taken on the position at the start of the pandemic, she has decided now is the time to return to the south of England, where her family is based, to pursue fresh career opportunities,” Manchester Airports Group (MAG) said in a statement.
Ian Costigan, MAG’s group transformation director, will take on the role of interim managing director and will be responsible for delivering the programmes of recruitment needed to increase operational capacity over the summer.
Smart had been due to meet Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, on Tuesday, as well as Unite, the union.
Travellers have faced long delays and chaotic scenes, with queues trailing outside terminals to reach check-in and hordes of people waiting to get through security and to pick up luggage. One man told the BBC on Sunday that he waited seven hours, missing his flight, and saw “sick on the floor with no one clearing it up” as people queued in a “boiling hot confined area”.
Piles of suitcases have been left in terminals after travellers abandoned the wait to reclaim their baggage and instead headed home.
One airport worker publicly quit this week over what he called “dangerous” and “chaotic” operations. Ray Ellis, who had worked at the airport since 1994 and had been a health and safety representative, said he was speaking out because he was “genuinely concerned for passenger safety”.
Passengers have reported airport disruption for several weeks, long before school Easter holidays, with one regular user deciding to switch to the train to travel to France.
Paul Doran, 35, a commodities trader who lives in Liverpool, flies to his employer’s Paris office about once a month, and last flew from Manchester airport on 16 March. Despite arriving at the airport three hours before his flight carrying only hand luggage, it took him so long to get through security that he arrived at the gate at the time his flight was due to take off.
“The queue for security started in the drop-off car park,” Doran said, adding that the airline delayed the flight’s departure to give queueing passengers a chance to arrive.
“It’s a failure of planning. People were clearly going to start travelling again as soon as they could. It was entirely foreseeable,” he said. “I’m not sure how the airport was caught cold. It’s not like a bus, where they are not sure who will be there.”
The airport, along with much of the aviation industry, has struggled to recruit staff made redundant after the pandemic shutdown of airports and travel. As the Easter getaway increases travel, similar problems have hit other airports including Heathrow and Birmingham. More than 1,000 UK flights have been axed in recent days due to crews being off sick amid a rise in coronavirus cases.
Industry experts said airlines and airports were struggling because of the number of job cuts made during the pandemic.
John O’Neill, a north-west regional industrial officer for Unite, said that after mass redundancies due to Covid, some workers had found alternative jobs with similar wages and might not be willing to return to work at the airport doing unsociable hours for similar rates of pay.
O’Neill said: “There is a huge problem with recruitment, a massive problem with recruitment. This is the test for summer, the Easter break is the test for summer. Summer is going to be far worse than this. It is the time to get everything in place otherwise summer is going to very difficult.”
MAG, which also runs Stansted and East Midlands airport, is partly owned by the 10 local authorities of Greater Manchester, with the biggest stake held by Manchester council. The Australian investment firm IFM Investors owns a 35% stake.
The MAG airport website is currently offering jobs for drivers with a starting salary of £13,000 a year and security “ambassador” jobs targeted to students paying £10.53 an hour, including nightshifts, 3am starts, weekends and bank holidays.
The chief executive of MAG, Charlie Cornish, said: “Over the last two years Karen has guided Manchester airport through the most challenging period of its 84-year history, having made a major contribution to MAG throughout her time with the business.
“I am sorry to lose Karen after her years of valuable service, but also understand her desire to return to the south for family reasons and indeed to explore new career opportunities. While there are sure to be further challenges ahead, I am confident we will soon start to see the benefits of the recovery plans Karen has helped put in place and look forward to working with Ian and his leadership team to drive them forward.”