Menzies could lose LAX baggage handling job over safety breaches

Board of airport commissioners of Los Angeles World Airports has had on its agenda a recommendation to terminate the Scottish company’s agreement

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John Menzies is in danger of losing its prestigious contract to handle baggage at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) as unions call on authorities to hold the company to account over a safety record that has seen four deaths in less than a decade at California airports.

The Independent can reveal that the board of airport commissioners of Los Angeles World Airports has had on its agenda a recommendation to terminate the Scottish company’s non-exclusive licence agreement at LAX – America’s third busiest airport – five times in the past year.

The closed-door discussions have concerned what commissioners say is the “significant litigation risk” posed by following the recommendation. The commissioners will meet again early next month.

It comes amid continuing controversy over the company’s safety record. In August the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) fined Menzies $77,250 (£48,000) for five safety violations related to the death of Cesar Valenzuela, 51, who was killed after being thrown from a baggage tractor that did not have a functioning seat belt.

Investigators lambasted a “flawed safety policy” that “discouraged employee seat belt use” and said the fatality could have been prevented with “a well thought out and implemented safety plan”.

At the time it was imposed, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters said she found it “deeply disturbing that these violations may have contributed to Mr Valenzuela’s death”.

Mr Valenzuela is the third Menzies worker to die at LAX in the past eight years. The other fatality occurred at San Francisco. The fine is also the second imposed on Menzies over safety in the past two years. A $95,000 penalty was imposed last year over a number of violations.

Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) is in the process of renewing all of its licences and it would represent a serious blow to the company were it to be removed.

Menzies Aviation is the fastest growing and most profitable of the company’s two divisions, having reported a 7 per cent increase in revenues at the half year, when it contributed £15.5m of the group’s total operating profit of £26m. Revenues were flat at its newspaper and magazine wholesaling business.

John Menzies is perhaps best known for its chain of newsagents, which were sold to WHSmith at the end of the 1990s.

Valarie Long, the executive vice-president of the Service Employees International Union, told The Independent:  “Menzies Aviation has endangered the lives of some of the very people who have provided profits for the company and the airlines it serves.

“They have created a culture where adequate health and safety standards have seemingly not been consistently maintained at LAX airport. These concerns are reflected in the fact that four people who worked for the company’s US operations have died following workplace incidents in recent years.

“With the company’s licence to operate at LAX up for re-certification over the coming months, the airport authority will consider, as with all such licences, whether the company adequately meets the airport’s responsible contractor standards. The pattern of safety concerns reported by workers and reviewed by Cal/OSHA raises important matters for them to take into due account.”

A spokesperson for John Menzies plc said: “Menzies Aviation has been working at LAX for over 10 years and enjoys the strong relationship it has with its workforce and our airline customers at this station. Safety is central to all of our operations and we are committed to the safety and security of our employees and our customers. Menzies are committed to our operations at LAX and continue to liaise with LAWA as part of the licence renewal process.”