Hundreds of Virgin Atlantic cabin crew sue for unfair dismissal

<span>Virgin Atlantic staff with passengers at Heathrow in November 2021 at the reopening of the New York to London route after Covid. </span><span>Photograph: Doug Peters/PA</span>
Virgin Atlantic staff with passengers at Heathrow in November 2021 at the reopening of the New York to London route after Covid. Photograph: Doug Peters/PA

Hundreds of long-serving Virgin Atlantic cabin crew are suing the airline for unfair dismissal, claiming that the airline used Covid redundancies to target older staff.

An employment tribunal in London will start examining more than 200 cases next month, at which former crew will argue that Sir Richard Branson’s airline unfairly made them redundant while retaining cheaper new hires.

Virgin grounded most of its fleet, alongside most other airlines, from March 2020, when the Covid pandemic led to lockdowns and global travel restrictions.

The airline quickly cut 3,000 jobs, eventually losing more than 40% of its 10,000-strong workforce, and established a “holding pool” for staff who were made redundant to be potentially hired again when flights resumed.

However, according to one claim, disclosure documents show that Virgin retained 350 new cabin crew via the pool, some with as little as one week’s training, while onboard managers, who were 45 on average with 20 years’ experience, were made redundant.

One of the onboard managers who lost her job was Susan Mcentegart, now 53, who had worked for Virgin for 23 years. She is part of a group of 51 claimants being represented by a Luton-based law firm.

She said: “It seemed the world was closing down and losing jobs was inevitable. But the way they went about it seemed unfair. But I was flabbergasted that I wasn’t in the holding pool.

“There were people who hadn’t even got their wings – after six weeks of training – in the pool, and there seemed to be too many of us of an age that were left out.”

Mcentegart added: “It was a devastating loss … It felt like my identity was gone, and I was in a dark place with how they went about it. I’d felt it was an honour to work for Virgin, and I couldn’t believe they’d done what they’d done.”

Another 150 former staff are pursuing claims via the Cabin Crew Union, and 11 are represented elsewhere.

A spokesperson for the airline said: “Following the severe impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the aviation industry, Virgin Atlantic had to make very difficult decisions. Sadly, this included reducing the number of people employed across the business by 45%.

“Our people are incredibly important to us, from those who have been with us since 1984, to our newest recruits. Throughout the redundancy process, we were committed to ensuring all our people were treated fairly and compassionately.

“To allow as many of our people to return as soon as demand allowed, we introduced a holding pool, which meant that more than 1,000 of our cabin crew returned at their previous level of seniority.

“Where people had to unfortunately leave us, it was for unbiased, objective and lawful reasons, after full consultation with our recognised unions, elected colleague representatives and clear and open continued communication.”

The airline had warned that it was on the brink of collapse before Branson and other shareholders secured a £1.2bn rescue plan in late 2020 to keep it going until international travel resumed.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2022, the airline’s chief executive, Shai Weiss, said the company had needed to make cuts before the pandemic, after years of borderline profit and loss. Virgin had needed to use “a crisis as an opportunity”, asking itself, he said: “Can we be more brutally focused, can we go even further?”