Ruling on mother's hours will ground female pilots, warns BA's chief executive

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The Independent Online

The newly knighted chief executive of British Airways has warned that a sex-discrimination case won by one of the company's pilots will deter airlines from taking on female flight crew.

Sir Rod Eddington, who is also the Government's most senior adviser on transport, told The Independent that his airline would fight the judgment "all the way" to the European court.

Despite protests from BA, an employment tribunal ruled that Jessica Starmer, 26, a first officer, could fly half her normal hours so that she could devote more time to childcare.

Ms Starmer had just under 1,000 hours flying experience, although the airline says it is unsafe to allow pilots to work 50 per cent of the time unless they have at least 2,000 hours.

The airline has taken its argument to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, which is due to hear the case this summer. Sir Rod, who is to retire on 30 September, said the company's regulations were drawn up on the advice of its senior pilots. The rule was based on safety considerations and had nothing to do with sexual discrimination or any desire to use a pilot to the maximum extent to recoup the cost of training, he said.

Senior office-holders at the blue-chip company, including Sir Rod himself, were duty-bound to follow the advice of their own senior flight crew, he said. "What right has an employment tribunal to pronounce on a safety issue in aviation?" he asked.

The Civil Aviation Authority allows airlines to set their own rules on the matter provided they are seen to be safe, he noted.

Ms Starmer, who is married to a BA captain, is pregnant again and, as part of normal procedures, has been taken off flying duties.

At the employment tribunal, Ms Starmer's union, the British Airline Pilots' Association (Balpa), successfully argued that BA had produced no evidence to prove she was incapable of working half-time. Her lawyers pointed out that her record was "outstanding" and her supporters have since alleged that there is a "deep-rooted" prejudice against female pilots at the "male-dominated" airline.

A spokesman for Balpa said that, after listening to expert witnesses, the tribunal rejected BA's claim that there was a safety issue - an argument which was used "late in the day".

He added: "Other airlines have no problem employing women pilots and giving them flexible hours so that they can cope with family duties."

The seriousness of the case can be seen in BA's choice of a senior QC, Christopher Jeans, to present its appeal and in the decision by Mr Justice Burton, the president of the tribunal, to preside.

Management had cut Ms Starmer's hours to 75 per cent of full-time so that she could care for her 18-month-old daughter, Beth, but refused to reduce them further.

Four other BA pilots are understood to be pregnant and Balpa is expecting similar cases in future. Of the company's 2,932 pilots, 152 are women. One BA source said: " If a BA plane went down and a pilot was working 50 per cent of the time a couple of months out of training, we wouldn't come well out of subsequent investigations." However, a spokesman for the airline said that managers had no intention of changing its recruitment procedures and that the company was optimistic that it would win the appeal.