Minister's day at the airport

If you caught a flight from Gatwick the other day and the ticket check was a little slow, you were probably being attended to by Phil Hope, the skills minister.

Mr Hope enjoyed a fast-track introduction to the airline industry when he joined the airport's floor walkers, saw passengers on to their flight and took a ride in a push-back tug as it pulled the aircraft from the gate, ready for taxi.

Mr Hope managed to keep smiling - despite the fact that, like any airport worker, he will have met his fair share of agitated customers. Perhaps his political background prepared him well for the experience.

He met apprentices working for Servisair, the firm responsible for handling the passengers and the aircraft on the ground, and from easyJet, the budget airline.

Mr Hope appeared to be enjoying his work experience as he waved from the tug as the aircraft was being towed into position on the taxiway.

Two hours later, its passengers were presumably even happier as they arrived in Athens - around the time Mr Hope would have been back in his office at the Department for Education and Skills.

Emma Goddard, NVQ and apprenticeship assessor for Servicair, said: "It was an enjoyable day for the staff and he seemed to enjoy it too.

"Before he went out to the tug, he popped into the cockpit briefly, which he really seemed to enjoy."

Mr Hope said: "Two things struck me. These are non-stop operations and the apprentices learning on the job become incredibly polished after a few months of high-quality training. They are doing professional work involving complex rules and regulations and tight security.

"This is not work for the uncommitted. Those I met were all highly impressive, personable young people facing many pressures but having to stay calm and polite whatever stress passengers face."

Standards of training in the airline industry are governed by GoSkills - the sector skills council for transport, which was set up in 2004. In aviation, its partners include all the major airports and airlines.

One of its projects, Aviation for the 21st Century, is a review of skills needs in the north-west, working with Manchester, Liverpool and Blackpool airports. It is also carrying out a review of the occupational standards required in aviation - including flight deck and cabin crew and ground staff.

Aviation is one of the sectors covered by the Leitch report, expected in November, which will look at the UK's skills needs up to 2020.

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