Expert View: A crisis of control on BA's flight deck

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The Independent Online

British Airways has finally come to an agreement with the trade unions over the wildcat strike by check-in staff at Heathrow. And not a moment too soon. Those of us planning to travel abroad over the holiday period have been following with unease the story of BA's inability to engage and communicate with its employees.

My family and I are due to fly with BA next week, when we start our own summer holiday. Even my five-year-old daughter, watching the news and seeing the crowds stran-ded at Heathrow, was worried we might have problems.

Although BA's decision to introduce a swipe card staff entry system was based on an understandable wish to make working practices more efficient, the airline should have gauged the mood of its employees more accurately. If it had, the crisis could have been avoided. It is always easy to judge these communication issues with hindsight but, that said, there are three lessons from the risk communication field that are applicable here.

First, the key to good industrial relations at any organisation is for the management to be aware of how the employees are feeling about its various decisions. This is possible only by means of active dialogue between the two parties - something that did not happen on this occasion.

Second, a strong organisation is built on respect, leadership and trust. Based on last week's events, it is clear that at least one - if not all - of these elements was missing at BA. Check-in staff were fully aware that, by going forward with the wildcat strike on one of the busiest weekends of the year, they would maximise the damage to BA. Had the employees respected management, they would not have staged this strike.

Third, in any crisis it is vital to lead from the front and to reassure all parties that the situation is under control. But like the rest of the airline's management, Rod Eddington, the chief executive, was taken by surprise by the strike action and did not take charge for several days. Because of the lack of early leadership, the crisis simmered in press reports even after the strike had ended, causing still further damage to BA's reputation.

So what should BA do now?

The airline was finally able to bring in a swipe card system by offering its 2,500 employees at both Heathrow and Gatwick a 3 per cent pay rise. This damage limitation was necessary to ensure that customers, worried about its ability to maintain an uninterrupted service throughout the summer, would not abandon BA in droves.

In the medium term, and most importantly, BA has to regain the trust of its employees, its customers and the wider community. Trust lost is very difficult to restore. This initiative has to be led from the top. In BA's case, it is encouraging to see Mr Eddington now actively engaged in trust-building.

As another medium-term measure, BA should fund an independent report on what went wrong. Most organisations are not interested in spending money on evaluations, but this is short-term thinking. In the past, such studies have helped put companies back on their feet, most notably in the case of Shell after the fiasco surroun- ding the decommissioning of the Brent Spar oil platform.

One worry remains. Despite having acted in a rather disorganised way on this occasion, the airline workers' unions may be encouraged by their recent "success" to use the threat of strike action to win further concessions. Passengers could then abandon BA permanently, leading to the demise of yet another British icon.

Professor Ragnar Lofstedt is director of the King's Centre for Risk Management, King's College London