AA 'cannot cope with breakdowns', drivers told

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The Independent Online

Motorists returning from the bank holiday weekend are being warned that Britain's biggest motoring organisation is facing major problems coping with breakdowns.

Insiders at the 15 million-member AA claim that, at peak times, patrols can take up to four hours to get to stranded motorists. Staff shortages have been made worse by technical problems with new vehicles, according to the organisation's patrol staff.

New dual-purpose trucks are replacing both the normal vans used by AA patrol staff and the larger recovery lorries sent out to carry cars which cannot be mended at the roadside. A design fault has been found on a two-wheel trailer at the back of the new truck which lifts the front wheels of a broken-down vehicle so it can be taken to a garage. The trucks remain on patrol, but a number of their "vehicle recovery systems" are being taken out of service. Stranded drivers are offered a tow instead - although inexperienced and nervous motorists are rejecting the offer, according to insiders.

The AA insisted that the difficulties with the new system were not affecting the service. The technical problems emerged after a difficult summer in which the AA has been accused by employees' representatives of being unable to cope with peak periods or "very hot, very cold or changeable weather conditions".

A text message allegedly issued by a staff member over the weekend of 1 and 2 July at the AA's Operation Centre in Birmingham claimed that stranded motorists were having to wait up to four hours. The text message, according to the GMB general union, was sent out over the AA's on-board computer system known as "VIXEN". It read: "Hi Everyone, Just started and most jobs are 4 hours old." Other texts show that patrol staff are increasingly stretched with up to 90 motorists waiting for help in some areas at peak periods.

Response times among motoring organisations have generally deteriorated this year, but the AA has slipped from first to third in the league table, according to a Which? report in March. The GMB, which formerly negotiated on behalf of AA staff, claims that the service has deteriorated since the survey.

The AA said that overall the workforce had been cut from 10,000 to 7,000 and the patrol staff have been reduced from 3,500 to 3,000.

Union officials argue that the cutbacks are considerably higher and point out that they have been made since the motoring organisation was jointly bought from Centrica in 2004 by the venture capitalists Permira and CVC.

Officials at the GMB accuse the venture capitalists of "asset-stripping" the company. "The higher profits come at a cost," said Paul Maloney, a senior official at the GMB.

A company spokesman said that some areas had experienced demand 35 per cent higher than normal for the time of the year and that the last time it had experienced such a level was summer 2003. Even at peak periods this summer the average time taken to reach breakdowns was 48 minutes, compared with a normal 40 to 45 minutes, he said. "We fully accept there are times when things go wrong but the important things is that we ... put it right as soon as possible." He said it would be "grossly unfair" to single out the AA when all breakdown organisations had experienced higher demand. The "vast majority" of the employees made redundant were in loss-making businesses and a minority of patrol staff who fell short of "required performance levels" were offered retraining or severance. The spokesman said the text messages could not be "authenticated". The new dual-purpose vehicles made up 460 out of 3,000 AA vehicles and the technical problems had caused no deterioration in the service, the spokesman argued.

The trucks' "vehicle recovery systems" were being taken out of service as a precautionary measure after a problem was discovered on one truck. He said thousands of employees had resigned from the GMB and that the union had a "self-promoting agenda" built on "spurious allegations".