10-point plan for getting BA back in the sky
Never mind Acas: Simon Calder offers both sides a free consultation on how to settle this disastrous dispute
Friday 28 May 2010
1. Remember what the strike is about
A dispute ostensibly centred on whether or not the senior member of cabin crew on long-haul flights to and from Heathrow should push a trolley has deteriorated into the most expensive and damaging British industrial dispute in a generation.
Just in case you have forgotten, the dispute began over reform of outmoded working practices and assurances about future prospects for existing crew; as it has dragged on, issues arising from the conflict itself – disciplinary action against union members and the withdrawal of staff travel perks from strikers – have elbowed their way into the negotiations.
2. Go for an easy win: give the cheap tickets back
The depth of this venomous dispute becomes apparent when you consider the apparently intractable divide over staff travel privileges. Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways, warned strikers they would lose all staff travel benefits forever. He later offered to reinstate them, with reduced perks for strikers, if the second stoppage was called off. It wasn't, and he has now reiterated the threat: "A permanent ban will happen if the union engages in strike action."
At the same time, the joint general secretaries of Unite, Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson, have declared: "Any agreement to end this dispute must and will include a framework for the full restoration of those travel concessions."
The union will prevail. Plenty of BA staff will be appalled to see Willie Walsh cave in on travel perks: they will conclude cabin crew have once again caused mayhem with impunity, with no personal loss beyond a few days' pay. But it is frankly unthinkable that half the inflight staff on a 747 are enjoying their full privileges thanks to acting as "scabin crew" (in the choice phrase of the strikers) while the other seven are penalised for following the overwhelming majority in favour of industrial action.
The likely scenario is this: the deal will include reinstatement with a few benefits lost, but within a year these, too, will be restored.
By handing back travel perks, BA is potentially storing up trouble for future disputes; it is, though, the lesser of two evils.
3. Accept there will be no reversal of disciplinary action
More than 30 union members have been disciplined in connection with the dispute, and some have been sacked. Messrs Woodley and Simpson appear reluctantly to accept British Airways' refusal to budge on dismissals. Some softening of penalties on other staff may be offered in order to allow the union to claim a minor victory.
4. Cut out the lawyers
The legal profession has profited almost as much as BA's rivals from this dismal dispute. The airline's knee-jerk response to any resounding vote by Unite members in favour of a stoppage seems to be to put its lawyers on the case, trawling through the technicalities until they have enough ammunition to seek yet another High Court injunction. It infuriates the cabin crew and doesn't impress the average citizen who recognises the validity of a pro-strike vote even if they have no sympathy with the cabin crew.
5. Don't obsess about scoring the winning goal
One of the many strange features of this dispute is that the three central players know they won't be in their jobs a year from now. The joint general secretaries of Unite are retiring to be replaced by a single figure (though it's not clear whether he or she will be required to deliver a Twitter blog), and BA's chief executive is moving to Madrid at the end of the year to run the joint BA/Iberia operation when the national airlines of the UK and Spain merge. There is an obvious analogy with footballers in their last cup final desperate to claim victory. But this isn't a matter of football – it's much more important than that.
6. Understand how awful it looks from abroad
The damage goes way beyond lost revenue for BA and lost wages for cabin crew.
Consider the impact on Scotland, which yesterday saw only six BA departures for Heathrow rather than the usual 27. It does not impress the international visitor, whether on business or holiday, to find that access to Britain's main hub is drastically curtailed.
7. Make this a battle between two sides, not three
Before reaching a "split-the-difference" settlement, Unite has to rein in the third party (and I don't mean the Socialist Workers' Party who invaded the peace talks at Acas on Saturday). The British Airlines' Stewards and Stewardesses Association (Bassa) is the maverick branch of Unite that ultimately will endorse or reject any peace deal.
Tony Woodley told me this week that only the SWP intervention scuppered a settlement last weekend, but the cabin crew I have talked to on a couple of visits to the strike HQ near the southern runway at Heathrow are not convinced: they will have the final sign-off on any deal, but Willie Walsh regards Bassa as dysfunctional. At the very least, Unite must scrutinise the messages from Bassa to members to make sure they are accurate. On which subject...
8. Call off the propaganda dogs
Stop using misleading figures in lieu of finding a settlement. During the March strikes, Bassa made some ludicrous claims about BA planes being parked up in Cardiff and Shannon. Earlier this week, BA announced that it served 100 per cent of its short-haul destinations. That, as anyone hoping to fly between Heathrow and Manchester would know, was true only in the narrowest of senses: the Gatwick-Manchester route continued to operate.
The union's propaganda machine has been much more effective – partly because the law insists BA tells the truth. This week listeners to Radio 2 learned from a former cabin crew member that he could lose his travel privileges for talking to the media. Tosh. Indeed, no serving cabin crew have been disciplined for talking to the media, as many have done.
9. Beware M.A.D.
BA's rant about "the union's cynical attempts to destroy our airline" is not cancelled out by Unite's assertion that "BA is trying to destroy this union". The Cold War concept of "Mutually Assured Destruction" depended on neither side going nuclear. Unless this vicious war of words ends, the future for BA – and all its staff – is bleak.
10. Don't mess with the passenger
The salaries of Willie Walsh and everyone at BA are paid by you and me. The longer the dispute drags on, the longer it will take us to forgive and forget. British Airways is an excellent airline, but so too is everyone from easyJet to Emirates. The endless circles of this conflict are rather like a 747 flying perpetual circuits above London while the fuel, and the passengers' confidence, runs out.
And you know what happens next...
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