Sick notes, stress, strife: crisis at British Airways

Airline chaos blamed on chronic failure of industrial relations
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The Independent Online

British Airways' troubled summer took another turn for the worse yesterday as thousands of passengers were condemned to a second day of chaos, cancellations and delays.

British Airways' troubled summer took another turn for the worse yesterday as thousands of passengers were condemned to a second day of chaos, cancellations and delays.

For customers, long-suffering shareholders and overstretched staff, the most alarming feature of yesterday's disruption at Heathrow was that it took place on a Tuesday, the day of the week traditionally the quietest in aviation. Blame for the cancellation of more than 30 BA flights could not be pinned on industrial action, air-traffic control computer collapse or orders from the US Department of Homeland Security.

Instead, after 30 years' experience of the complex choreography involved in running the biggest airline at the world's busiest international airport, BA bosses were forced to deploy the lamest excuse in travel: staff shortage.

But evidence suggests the problems run much deeper than finding enough staff to check in passengers who had booked months before for their holiday flights. Instead, the origin of the chaotic scenes at Heathrow yesterday lies in a combination of low staff morale, absenteeism and overstretched human and technical resources.

Last week, BA was forced to suspend bookings temporarily for its most lucrative weekend of the year, after unions representing Heathrow's baggage handlers, check-in agents and ground staff had threatened to strike over the August bank holiday. The stoppage was averted, with a deal that includes bonuses for staff who take fewer than the present average of 17 days of sick leave each year.

The counting for those bonuses starts on 1 October. Until then, BA bosses face the prospect of many employees simply failing to turn up for work. Or as one source put it yesterday: "Plenty of people are getting their retaliation in early, racking up the days off while they can." In fact, until the introduction of the new terms, BA is planning its staffing levels at Heathrow Terminal 1 on the basis that one in 10 staff will go sick each day, an extraordinary level for a time of year when most common health afflictions are at a minimum.

Yesterday, even BA's generous allowance was insufficient: out of the 180 terminal staff rostered for the morning shift, 20 failed to show up. Yet the airline said sickness was "not an issue whatsoever" in the disruption at Heathrow, although one in nine of its staff had stayed at home. Those who turned up for work had to clean up the mess left by Monday's chaos, and bore the brunt of the anger of passengers furious about further delays and cancellations.

The unions say the stress and exhaustion of peak season inevitably causes high levels of sickness. But there is a deeper malaise: that British Airways management is failing to engage with its staff, on whose goodwill the labyrinthine business of flying planes efficiently and profitably depends. BA needs to lift the morale of its staff, as well as their attendance levels. The failure to do so explains the high rate of terminal staff turnover. BA is recruiting and training replacement workers who start work next month, after the summer peak. "Like training Father Christmases in January," said the talk-radio host, Mike Dickin.

But an overstretched workforce is not the only reason for yesterday's disruption. At the start of the summer season, many flights were shuffled between terminals at Heathrow. BA now operates from all four, stretching human and technical resources even more thinly. Staff told of departures being delayed because tugs - needed to push back aircraft - were waiting to cross the active runway between Terminals 1 and 4. Congestion built as arriving aircraft waited for stands to become available. "It's a monumental cock-up", one BA captain said.

At airports across Europe yesterday, travellers turned up for early-morning flights to Heathrow to find the aircraft intended to carry them were still on the ground in London. Many passengers missed the BA's long-haul flights they were supposed to connect with.

With aircraft running at close to capacity, rebooking passengers proved fraught, and some spent last night in travel limbo at hotels around Heathrow, with time on their hands to complain to the media about the poor treatment.

Their numbers were augmented by the impatient Club World passengers waiting yesterday for flights that were cancelled on Monday evening to New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. Each had paid £2,000 for the one-way flight. "These aren't the sort of people you want to piss off," one BA insider said. The airline makes more profit from a full business-class cabin on a transatlantic flight than it does from flying an entire jumbo-load of passengers to Australia.

The man in the firing line is Mike Street, director of customer service and operations. At one stage yesterday he uttered the meaningless phrase "operational difficulties", so beloved of complacent airlines during the good old days of high fares and low competition.

In an apology to passengers, he said: "I am extremely sorry that some of our customers have had to endure delays and cancellations and have had their plans so badly disrupted. We are working as hard as we can to put right those wrongs and get customers away on their holidays or business trips as quickly as we can."

His apology may have provided little consolation to Paul McGowan. The 27-year-old Australian, living in Manchester, was among the passengers at Heathrow yesterday. After discovering his Madrid flight had been cancelled, he said: "We just went up to the desk and they said, 'You are in the right line, but it has been cancelled'."

Mr McGowan said he had been told to queue at the ticket sales desk to find a replacement flight. "It's a world-renowned company," he said. "They should have the infrastructure in place to ensure they have adequate staff." His fellow traveller, David Chapman, 23, from London, was more succinct. "It's an inconvenience. It sucks."

The last week in August is when British Airways should be making a mint, flying aircraft full of passengers who have paid high fares for the privilege of travelling on the self-styled "world's favourite airline". Instead, many customers are consigned to airport hotel rooms they have no wish to occupy, and for which the airline is paying a fortune.

BA's no-frills rivals, easyJet and Ryanair, have been quick to revel in the giant airline's misfortune; BMI and Virgin Atlantic, its more direct competitors, are concealing their glee. But they will all reap the benefit of BA's far-from-super Tuesday.