Airport Utopia: Flying on the Hope of Work

Article published on Nov. 4, 2014
Article published on Nov. 4, 2014

In the country with the highest youth unemployment in Europe, sometimes hope can come from unexpected places. Like an airport, for instance. Cafébabel went behind the scenes at Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport to uncover Airport Praxis providing jobs and hope to youth in Athens.

Professional opportunities and hope for young people in a place where work is increasingly rare. This sentence accurately describes Airport Praxis, an opportunity for 70 young people from 19 to 29 to work at Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens.

According to Eurostat, 57% of young people between 18 and 30 are unemployed in Greece. The situation is not likely to improve any time soon. For many, the hope of finding a job is remote, and the difficulty and discouragement has led those who can afford it to seek their fortune abroad. However, there exists a utopia — a Greek word from "ευ", meaning good, and "τόπος", meaning place — at the airport.

Located 40 kilometres from the city, the airport is named after one of the most important political figures in modern Greece and hosts 16 million passengers per year, with a daily traffic of about 65 flights. However, in recent years it has been rapidly expanding, enough to raise this number to 50 million passengers. But the turning point came with the 2004 Olympics. After its enlargement, it won the Skytrax Best Airport in Southern Europe award in 2005, 2006 and 2008. After its successful renovation, the company that manages the airport decided to create the programme to give youth the chance to work for six months, "providing them with the necessary work experience and on-the-job training for their future careers," explains the website. In a labour market where jobs are only to be found for those with previous experience, it is a vicious circle that is difficult to escape. More often than not, it means not finding that first job. 

The lucky ones

It takes nearly an hour to get to the airport from the city centre. We are welcomed by Ioakim, an employee from the press office. He receives us in front of the information centre and introcudes three young people who agreed to speak with us to tell us their stories. Irini, 21, lives in Pikermi, a city 20 kilometres north of the airport and studies journalism at the University of Athens. She has black hair and dark eyes, typical Greek traits that emanate a great desire to act. The young woman explains that she applied as soon as she heard of the opportunity. "In Greece, it is very difficult to find work at the moment. I am enrolled in university but I wanted to take this opportunity because I think it will be useful for my future," she says. Meanwhile, an elderly lady asks where to board and Irini explains the route. The young woman works at the information desk. Every day, she talks to many different people, one aspect of her work that she finds very exciting. "I'd like to stay even after the end of these six months," she confesses. But as soon as we ask about the future, her response turns to an expression of uncertainty.

We then move to another office, led by Ioakim. Along the way, I ask how many applications were received. "Around 3,000!" he says, with a bitter smile. It was not easy to accept only 70, both from the technical point of view to short-list so many candidates, but especially from the human perspective. Before drawing up the final list of the lucky ones, candidates were streamlined due to age, marital status, unemployment period, proficiency in English, education, and area of residence.

Behind the scenes of the airport

Thus, we arrive at an office in which there is a desk with two monitors and many other devices around it. Here we find Nikos Megagianis, 28, who receives us warmly with a big smile. Despite being quite busy, he responds to our questions. He lives in Keratea, 26 kilometres south of the airport. Every day, he takes his car to work, but is happy to do it because he knows that many of his peers are not as lucky. "I love my job. I am responsible for coordinating and organising the service for people who have limited mobility or special needs, so that they can check in, board and disembark in the best way possible." While showing me his office, where he spends most of his time, I ask him why he chose to participate in this project. "It was a professional opportunity that does not happen every day, so I decided to try it. If I could go back, I would do it again without a doubt!" His work definitely requires less movement with respect to that of Irini, but is not at all less demanding or complicated.

Ioakim makes his way through the various rooms. We go up two floors with the elevator to find ourselves in very narrow corridors where most of the offices are located. This area, which most of the passengers do not know about, is actually a Hotspot for the operation of the airport, a kind of invisible backstage.

Work is not a utopia

Lina Mantzari, 25 years old, works at the press office. Most of her work takes place in front of a computer. "I am involved in communication in all its forms. I respond to emails and work on the website and often I manage the Facebook and Twitter pages," she says, as she pauses a bit on the difficult situation in Greece, especially from the perspective of a young person. Inevitably, she reminds us of how high the unemployment rate is, especially among young people and how extremely difficult it is to find a job, regardless of skills and training. In particular, it is very difficult to be able to get a first job experience. This is one of the main reasons why Lina immediately sent her application to become part of Airport Praxis. "I had already searched for other jobs in the past," she says, "sending a lot of applications, but I never found anything. I think it is very useful and very constructive for my career to have this kind of experience, one where I can acquire skills in this field by paying my dues." Every once in a while, she will stop working, but we stay with her ​​until end of her shift. And when we ask by what means of transport she arrives at the airport every day, because of the heavy traffic during rush hour, she leads us to the parking lot where her car is. "But isn’t the subway more convenient?" At this point, she shows us her AIA special exemption card, which allows her to avoid paying the highway tolls.

All the young persons at Praxis in fact enjoy the same rights as the airport employees, including the reimbursement of transport costs. And above all, they are paid decently, as opposed to what was reported in many media outlets, which argued that the wage was limited to the reimbursement of transport costs. In a very difficult time like the present, this is very rare. And if the situation in Greece remains extremely difficult, Airport Praxis, — despite lasting only lasts six months — can give hope to a generation and become a model to be replicated.