Pilot in work hours dispute accuses BA of sex bias

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The Independent Online

A British Airways pilot accused the airline yesterday of sexual discrimination because it would not allow her to cut her working hours to look after her child.

First Officer Jessica Starmer, 26, who is married to a BA pilot, told an industrial tribunal that she would be forced to resign from the job she loves if her employer did not allow her to reduce her hours by 50 per cent to look after her one-year-old daughter, Beth.

The British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa), which is backing her case, said it was stunned the airline had not "woken up" to the fact that more women were becoming pilots, requiring a new range of flexible employment practices.

British Airways insists that it offered Ms Starmer the opportunity to work 75 per cent part time, the company's safety limit in cases where a pilot's experience fell short of 2,000 flying hours.

Ms Starmer, an Oxford graduate who joined the airline in May 2001 after 18 months training, is also claiming loss of earnings. She told the tribunal at Watford: "I have spent many years flying at every opportunity and have invested a great deal of time and effort working towards being able to earn my living through the activity I love ... I do not want to have to give up the job I have always wanted to do and worked so hard for."

She added: "I believe that given our family unfriendly working practices, BA's lack of accommodation for working mothers works to exclude females from its pilots and to reinforce, rather than reform, the traditional male dominance in its workforce."

Ms Starmer, a co-pilot who flies A320 aircraft on shorthaul European routes, told the tribunal she and her husband, Simon, worked "extremely irregular" shift patterns, which meant early starts, late finishes and overnight stays abroad. The work roster was allocated by a computerised "bidding" system which was based on seniority and meant it was difficult for the couple to dovetail their shifts so someone was always free to care for their young child.

Ms Starmer told the hearing: "It was clear to me that following my daughter's birth, I would not be able to return to work full time. This was due to a combination of factors, but in particular the nature of the BA shifts meant that I could not look after Beth on any basis other than 50 per cent part-time work."

The working hours made it difficult to find a childminder and the couple did not have the room for a live-in nanny, she explained. She had worked out that if her husband worked 75 per cent and she did 50 per cent, they could ensure that at least one of them was at home outside normal working hours.

Ms Starmer's request was refused by BA managers but she and her husband were offered the opportunity to work 75 per cent part time.

BA informed her it would not be possible, she said, for a range of reasons, from the cost of training two part-time pilots as opposed to one full-time, and the impact it would have on the reserve pilots who covered for colleagues.

Ms Starmer, of Wareham, Dorset, said it was not until three months after her appeal against the decision had been turned down that the company told her it was for safety reasons because she did not have the required 2,000 flying hours.

David Fielding, a Balpa representative, told the tribunal that Ms Starmer was a conscientious pilot, adding: "I'm not aware of any evidence suggesting pilots with less than 1,200 flying hours represent an increased risk to safety if they work part time ... BA recruited a number of women in their 20s over the last 10 years. It's only now, as they increasingly become mothers, that problems, combining shift patterns and the number of hours [worked] with looking after children and the requirements of normal domestic life, are beginning to show."

The case continues.