Last call for the captains in blue

British Airways' pilots - members of a dashing breed who can earn pounds 100,000 a year - are to strike. At issue is a pay claim, but there are deeper fears too: not least that the whole profession could soon go down in flames.
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Pilots and picket lines are an unlikely combination. The traditional image of an airline captain living in a large house in Sunningdale in a House and Gardens setting hardly accords with the sight of burning braziers outside factories, but barring a last minute deal, British Airways' pilots will walk out indefinitely next Monday. The sight of pickets arriving in Porsches to demonstrate outside airports is going to be commonplace as Balpa, the pilots' union, expects to have a presence at every airport.

The chances of holiday disruption are high. Although BA and the union are to hold talks today, there seems to be little meeting of minds and a vote of 90 per cent in favour by a group affluent enough to go without wages for a month or two is a strong bargaining counter in the union's hands. As one pilot said: "If you had asked me last week if I thought it was going to happen, I would have said no. But now I'm convinced it will."

There is no doubting the anger and militancy of the pilots. Keith Bill, a trade union consultant who has been drafted into help Balpa with their public relations, has been to mass meetings and likens it to the old trade union days of the 1970s: "I am amazed at how militant they are. They are very angry at the way they are being treated."

One pilot coming out of a meeting harangued Chris Darke, Balpa's general secretary, saying "Don't sell us out. We are rock solid about this." Mr Darke, taken aback, said, "You are behaving like Trots", and then said "sorry, you won't understand that", having realised that a pilot was likely to think a "Trot" had something to do with his daughter's pony.

The pilots have quite specific concerns about what they see as a poor wage offer of 3.6 per cent (only 2 per cent on their overall pay since their allowances are not increased) from a company that saw profits rise by 26 per cent to pounds 585m last year. There are, too, fears about younger, cheaper pilots being brought in on much lower rates of pay than the existing levels, which can see senior pilots receive in excess of pounds 100,000 per year. And most importantly, there is the issue of Gatwick and the former Dan Air routes.

The row between BA and its aircrew has been simmering ever since 1993 when BA took over Dan Air, an airline that had got into trouble because of over-expansion. Dan Air was based at Gatwick; BA took over many of its routes and pilots but rather than paying the pilots on BA's normal terms, it offered a deal that was much inferior, with wage rates often barely a half of the usual terms.

Balpa was torn. It tried to resist the creation of a kind of Class B contract but it also was trying to save as many pilots' jobs as possible. BA argued that unless it could run these routes on a low-cost basis, it would close them down and the jobs would be lost. After weeks of dithering, Balpa caved into BA - "a mistake they have been regretting ever since. It was the thin end of a wedge," one pilot said yesterday (anonymity is a prerequisite of keeping your job in this business). BA said that once the routes became profitable, they would increase the rates. Balpa says that they have now become money-making, but BA argues that the short-haul routes out of Gatwick barely break even, while it is the long-haul routes that have made Gatwick into a success. This type of argument is the base matter of which strikes are made.

Other European airlines, such as Alitalia, Air France and Lufthansa are all setting up similar low cost airlines. With the liberalisation of the European air market due to start in April 1997 and competition from these rivals imminent, pressure on air fares is going to be downwards. Therefore BA is anxious to be in a position to compete and EuroGatwick is its chief weapon against the expectations of their pilots that wages should go up and up.

But it is not these specific issues on pay or Gatwick which are the real cause of the dispute. As one exasperated BA manager put it: "If only we knew what they are worried about, we would try to deal with it." Indeed, while the Gatwick issue hangs over the dispute, the pilots' concerns are the same as the less tangible ones felt across industry by millions of white collar workers. As one pilot said: "We are professional men being treated like children. We want the management to treat us with trust, respect and fairness."

Asked to define their concerns, they do sometimes sound rather petty. One issue, for example, is their traditional right to use bunk beds to sleep in on very long haul flights where there are two crews to fly the plane. BA is removing the bunks and offering the pilots first class seats to doze in, but they say this is not good enough. One said: "I want to be able to sleep properly. You can't do that in a seat." Pilots don't have the option of a double whisky as a nightcap and they argue that they need to be fresh for the return leg.

The substance of the dispute, though, is much more intangible than these seemingly trivial concerns. It is the new world in which we are all being asked to work, where jobs are not for life, where wages go down as well as up, where long-established rights are taken away and where conditions become worse rather than better.

Underlying the dispute, too, is a palpable worry about the future. Pilots wonder if they will eventually be out of a job altogether, if aircraft and crew will be needed in the long run. The trend is for an international airline to consist of three things: a logo, a reservations computer and some prime-time slots at the world's busiest airport. The other bits and pieces - the bothersome business of actually flying people and products around the globe - can be hived off to other people.

Aircraft are the biggest capital cost to airlines, with a decent secondhand Boeing 737 - a kind of Ford Escort of the skies - costing around pounds 12m, and a brand-new Boeing 777 10 times as much. These are the sort of investments that accountants have nightmares about, so many of the aircraft filling the skies are owned by finance corporations rather than the airlines themselves.

When you are renting your plane, you can get a crew to go with it - turning a "dry lease" (the aircraft alone) into a "wet lease" (with pilots and cabin crew). When EasyJet began operations between Luton and Scotland last year, it used crews hired from Gatwick-based GB Airways.

Quite apart from the separate issue of EuroGatwick, BA is into this low- cost end of the business in a big way already with its franchise operations. It has other airlines, such as GB Airways to do its flying, in return for use of a British Airways logo. Not only are their cost bases lower, they also keep flying when BA pilots go on strike.

These days it is quite possible to buy a British Airways ticket with BA flight numbers yet not ever travel on BA. Anyone who is booked on BA flights from Leeds to Rome next week will not be affected by the pilots' strike, because at no stage will he or she travel on BA. The Leeds to Gatwick leg is operated by CityFlyer Express. Then you transfer to TAT, the French affiliate of BA, for the next two stretches, to Lyon and on to Rome. This pattern is repeated from Shetland to Southampton, Oakland to Auckland.

BA's proposed marketing tie-up with American Airlines takes this trend towards its ultimate conclusion. Subject to approval in Whitehall, Brussels and Washington, it will more than double the airline's existing network without a single new aircraft or well-paid pilot. This is the ultimate vision which BA's pilots fear and which is fuelling their anxiety and their militancy.

The pilots hear Robert Ayling, the chief executive, saying, at the AGM in March, things like "we are going to take a billion pounds off costs", without any explanation as to how he is going to do it, and it frightens them. Is he, they wonder, going to start massive franchising operations? He could look to the railways where individual routes are being sold and the strength of the national unions is being undermined as a result: perhaps, they muse, the same thing will happen to BA?

On the management side, "the resolve is strong", as one insider put it. Mr Ayling - salary just over pounds 500,000 per year - only took over the job at the beginning of this year and this is his biggest test. Indeed, some pilots blame the dispute on the macho cost-cutting culture he is trying to instil. Ayling is unabashed. He has said repeatedly that he wants BA to be the best managed company in Britain by the year 2000. He is no softie. A lawyer by trade, he was company secretary during much of the time of the "dirty tricks" war with Virgin and admits that some of those events were "regrettable".

While BA with Ayling at the helm is digging in, so are the pilots. Balpa is incredibly well organised, with union officials able to contact all their members, even in far flung corners of the world, at any time from the headquarters in Hayes, Middlesex. Pickets are to be placed at every airport. A central command structure has been created. Balpa mean business.

Contrary to the management's claims, there is no pool of trained pilots waiting to break the strike, either in the UK or abroad. According to Robin Rackham, an experienced pilot who has flown with a variety of independent airlines, "two years ago there were many surplus pilots because the recession hit the industry badly. Now there is barely a handful of type rated [trained to fly specific aircraft] pilots who are unemployed." A spokesman for the airline said, "We are looking at every optio n," but in private, BA managers admit that the notion of breaking the strike with over 3,000 outside pilots is fanciful.

This is the airline business's defining moment, the equivalent of the Times's lock-out of its printworkers at Wapping, the sacking of the camera crews by TV-am or the miners' strike of 1984-85. After each of those disputes, previously strong unions were left impotent and marginalised. The pilots - Porsches, ponies and all - are now being put to the same test.

Co-pilot to ground control: I'm on pounds 17,000 a year

While six-figure sums can be earned by pilots with the major airlines, life with the smaller carriers is distinctly different. A 30-year-old woman first officer explains:

"There are three ways of getting trained as a pilot: sponsorship from an airline, sponsorship from the military, or by paying for yourself. I paid for myself, over a period of seven years.

"I've been in the job for six months now. I fly between England, Ireland and Northern Europe, and it's all scheduled flying, done during the day. I'm usually at home in the evenings, though there is the occasional night stop at a destination. I have to report for work about an hour and a half before the flight, and my responsibilities as first officer are to check the weather conditions, the notices for that particular route, the level of air traffic - to make sure we can get to our destination, basically. Then we prepare the plane.

"In training I was bound to this airline for a period of three years. What happens after that I don't know - there's no head-hunting process, as far as I know - and at the moment it's very hard to get this kind of job. But it's all been very cyclical in recent years, and a couple of years from now it might be easier again. Besides, I'm not terribly ambitious: most people want to be on bigger planes at bigger airlines, with better pay and more security, but I prefer the order of my current lifestyle, just doing the scheduled flights.

"The basic starting salary with this airline is pounds 13,390, but untaxed allowances, for meals and such, might make it up to pounds 17,000-pounds 18,000. It may not seem very much for the responsibility you are required to undertake, but people are willing to work for that, and I'm one of them. Air companies pay according to the number of people their aircraft carry. Our planes are only 66-seaters, with a flight crew of only two, but jet pilots, who will be flying, say, 200 people at a time, get about pounds 38,000 as a starting salary, going up to pounds 50,000. Having said that, though, working for a turboprop operator is no less demanding, even it is all on a smaller scale.

"It's a hard thing to get into, and if you can get a foot in the door, you will take whatever the airline is offering. And, if the airlines know they can get people for that money, then that is what they will offer. But things may well change in the next few years, and the salaries may have to increase to attract good candidates."