Thousands of jobs are set to be lost at ground handling giant Swissport as a result of the impact on air travel caused by the coronavirus crisis.
The company told staff on Wednesday that up to 4,556 jobs could be cut – more than half its UK workforce.
Chief executive Jason Holt said the company had to reduce the size of its workforce to survive.
The collapse in air travel means its revenue is forecast to be almost 50% lower than last year.
Swissport operates at airports across the UK, including Heathrow and Gatwick, which are among those badly hit by the crisis.
Mr Holt said in a message to staff: “We must do this to secure the lifeline of funding from lenders and investors to protect as many jobs as possible in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
“It’s true that we’ve seen tough times before – volcanic cloud, 9/11, the financial crisis – and we’ve weathered these. But this time it’s different. We have never seen anything like Covid-19 in our lifetimes.
“We are now facing a long period of uncertainty and reduced flight numbers, along with significant changes taking place to the way people travel and the way goods move around the world. There is no escaping the fact that the industry is now smaller than it was, and it will remain so for some time to come.”
Swissport employs 8,500 workers at airports, including baggage handlers and check-in staff.
Unions said the announcement was “devastating” news, especially for regional economies, and highlighted their call for the Government to offer help to the aviation industry.
Nadine Houghton, national officer of the GMB, said: “With Swissport now considering job cuts on this scale we have deep concerns about the viability of many of our regional airports and the benefits for regional connectivity that they bring.”
Oliver Richardson, national officer of Unite, said: “We can’t wait any longer, the UK Government needs to urgently intervene with a bespoke financial package and an extension of the 80% furlough scheme for the aviation industry.
“Speed is of the essence if the Government is to save thousands of aviation jobs and livelihoods.”
Mr Holt said: “This has been a very difficult decision to make, and I know it will be immeasurably harder for those who will eventually be leaving the company.
“But we must do it, if we are to continue operating and protect as many livelihoods as possible in the long run.”
He told staff that Swissport had been hit hard by the Covid-19 outbreak, beginning with the collapse of Flybe in March, adding: “While some areas of the business have been busier than others, across the company revenue has almost been completely lost. As of May, it’s down by more than 75%, and we still have bills to pay.
“Our company is a crucial part of the industry triangle made up of airports, airlines and airport services companies, but we operate a low-margin, high-volume business model.
“When aircraft aren’t flying our source of revenue evaporates. The unfortunate fact is that there simply aren’t enough aircraft flying for our business to continue running as it did before the Covid-19 outbreak, and there won’t be again for some time to come. We must adapt to this new reality.
“Although our airline partners are hoping to increase their numbers of flights, they too are struggling to plan schedules and stick to them.
“The International Air Transport Association has forecast that airline industry traffic may not recover to 2019 levels until 2023, and under some scenarios not until 2024.”
Pat McIlvogue of Unite said more than 800 jobs could be lost at all three major Scottish airports.
“We are now witnessing the domino effect cascading throughout the civil aviation industry from cabin crew to airport workers through to baggage handlers and security staff.
“The industry is so integrated that if one domino falls – they all do.
“It’s an imperative that the Scottish and UK Governments bring forward a tailored supportive package for the industry because if we don’t then thousands of jobs will be lost and when we come out of lockdown there will be no workers in any major Scottish airports left to support the industry getting back off the ground.”