BA cuts training to thwart strikes

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The Independent Online
British Airways is cutting the training time of new cabin crews in order to prevent the continuation of the "large-scale cancellations and disruption" which has resulted from a large number of staff being off sick.

The airline is still reeling from the effects of a three-day strike by stewards and stewardesses last month. Relations between management and staff remain poor, and a substantial number of cabin crew have still not returned to work. Martyn Bridger, head of cabin crew services at BA, has written to staff saying that sickness levels are "double the normal" in some fleets.

This has seen hundreds of services wiped from BA's schedules. According to the letter, since the strike ended more than 1,000 (13 per cent)of the total domestic and European flights and 220 (8 per cent) of longhaul services have had to be cancelled "as we have not been able to crew them".

In order to cope, the airline is to review its policy over staff sickness. BA will also "reduce its European flying during the summer or until we can be sure we can crew them reliably" and cut "all new entrant training programmes". At present staff need a 35-day course - but BA is proposing a "fast-track" 22-day schedule.

Many airlines consider crew training as a top priority for staff. Earlier this year the chief engineer for Air Canada told an industry conference that: "next to having serviceable equipment, the most important preparation for a safe environment is the training.

"Many of the public think that the cabin crew are there to serve the passenger, a waiter or waitress in the sky ... we, in the business, know they are there to ensure that, in the event of an emergency, there will be a rapid, controlled, and safe evacuation of all passengers."

BA says that safety "is still a top priority". The airline said that new recruits would only be missing out on "marketing presentations and some grooming training".

"All the mandatory courses will still be taken," said a spokesman. The airline claimed that its longhaul operations were running at "100 per cent".

The company added that staff were returning to their jobs. "At Heathrow, the number of cabin crew registered sick, above the normal level for this time of year, has fallen by 30 per cent in the past four days. At Gatwick, cabin crew sickness levels have now returned to the seasonal average".

According to a letter, obtained by The Independent, the "problems can be traced to a 72-hour strike" last month. "Over three days, we normally expect around 5,400 people to report ... during the strike over 3,500 did not ... "

Ominously, management appears to be hardening its stance. "We will be interviewing everyone who went sick over the strike period after their return to work," writes Mr Bridger.

The airline's executives are determined never again to allow staff to take sick leave instead of going on strike. "Some people are openly saying that they are `taking their turn' to go sick, as they felt those who went sick over the strike period `had thought they had got away with it'," Mr Bridger added.

As a result of the industrial action and the following disruption, BA has lost more than pounds 125m so far - over a cost-cutting programme that would have only saved pounds 42m.

Many companies have reported that they are reviewing the lucrative corporate accounts lodged with BA in the light of the strike and executives are terrified that this business will walk away from the airline.

The dispute remains unresolved, but management and union representatives are locked in talks.

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