When I got a job with British Airways I was so proud I was going to be flying around the world, experiencing new foods, smells and cultures and enjoying life.
I was young and fresh out of education and excited to work for such a respected airline. Working for British Airways was a glamorous and elegant role, a personification of the notion that the world is your oyster.
Whilst employed at British Airways, I took time off, paid and unpaid, to work with various refugee solidarity projects and eventually took a long period of time off coordinate a womens’ centre inside of a refugee camp in Northern Greece.
It was during this time that I became so vividly aware of the contrast in my experience of flying and travel to those being deported. British Airways flight attendants are the face of the company, they are the reason customers keep returning and they are proud to be representing Britain. But the violent and abrasive contrast of holidaymakers versus those being forcibly removed from their friends, family and homes and taken to places where they are unsafe or maybe subject to persecution and torture, was staggering.
How was it that I was so able to cross these borders freely but when it came to those trying to escape persecution and violence, the journey was life-endangering?
Deportations force airline staff to be unwillingly complicit in the Home Office’s brutal hostile environment. The majority of deportations happen using commercial airlines: airlines enter into contracts with the Home Office who then organise the removal of individuals on flights where paying customers are also on board. In one tragic case, this resulted in the death of Jimmy Mubenga on a British Airways flight.
Passengers reported hearing cries from Mubenga, stating that he couldn’t breathe while being restrained by G4S staff. It sounded horrific. A former BA flight attendant has since sued G4S for the trauma of witnessing this death.
How can a company as established as British Airways ask their employees to aid this abhorrent and dysfunctional process? British Airways claims to be an inclusive employer which upholds so-called “British values”. I would like to ask them what values they think they’re upholding by carrying out these deportations; who exactly are they benefiting aside from a divisive governmental regime?
I agree with Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, when she stated that any airline that engages with the Home Office’s current regime is quite clearly putting profits before human rights. In my opinion, British Airways is quite clearly putting profits before the emotional welfare of its staff and customers. Most importantly, it seems to me as though they are putting profits before the dignity and humanity of those in need. While employed by British Airways, I spoke to various internal managers regarding my personal stance on the issue and was faced with the same response over and over: that this is something BA do not have a choice in; they are legally obliged to carry out any deportation that the Home Office asks of them. Yet why is it that other airlines, such as Virgin Atlantic, have been able to agree to end their involvement in forced deportations?
It was that absolute lack of consideration that pushed me to make the choice to leave the organisation and decline a role with British Airways Flying Start programme. I know that British Airways still have an amazing body of staff who are affected by this issue on a daily basis, and this is one of the reasons that I am calling on British Airways to reconsider their position on this matter. In its 100th anniversary video, British Airways refers to Britain being full of love, hope and compassion. Why is British Airways not showcasing these characteristics instead of hiding behind the Home Office?
Elizabeth Beard is a former British Airways employee. Names have been changed to protect the identity of the writer
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