After decades flying high, Branson hits turbulence

As crew plan first ever walk-out, Simon Calder on what the dispute means for the airline

Twenty-seven years to the day after Virgin Atlantic's maiden flight, Sir Richard Branson's airline yesterday looked to be on the verge of its first-ever strike.

The British Airline Pilots' Association (Balpa) met to decide its next course of action after an overwhelming vote by flight crew in favour of a stoppage over pay. They agreed to postpone any announcement of industrial action.

No news, for most of the people affected by the Virgin Atlantic pilots' pay dispute, is bad news.

For passengers booked to fly with Virgin next month, it represents more uncertainty. Only those who will complete their journeys by 30 June – the first date that a strike could begin – can be confident their flight will operate.

Families booked to fly to Florida or beyond in July must wait to see how the dispute unfolds; until an agreement is reached or a stoppage is announced, they are unable to make alternative plans.

Balpa's position is entrenched: that Virgin's offer of a 4 per cent rise this year and 3 per cent in 2012 and 2013 is unfair.

"With inflation running at 5 per cent and likely to remain high, VA pilots would, if they accepted these increases, be in effect voting themselves years of wage cuts," it said.

Likewise, the airline has not moved from its statement that "the company has made a fair, affordable and sustainable offer that is in line with the rest of the industry and we continue to be open to dialogue".

Given the gulf between the two sides, the next move is likely to be the announcement of strike dates.

Balpa was careful not to say when it might reveal plans for industrial action. The union appears intent on giving Virgin the legal minimum of one week's notice of a strike, thereby limiting its ability to deploy contingency measures.

An announcement could come as early as today.

But Douglas McNeill, equity analyst for Charles Stanley Securities, said: "A strike isn't a foregone conclusion. Balpa is using the ballot to strengthen its hand in negotiations, knowing that if it comes to a strike it will have shot its bolt. But both management and unions will now find their options narrowing quite quickly."

The financial fortunes of Virgin Atlantic are sustaining extra damage with every day that uncertainty prevails. The airline's most profitable passengers are business travellers who tend to book late and pay the highest fares. Travel agents are understandably keen to steer their clients away from potential problems, and are already booking travellers on other carriers for journeys next month.

As an airline that has endured heavy losses from the financial crash, volcanic ash and snow at Heathrow, Virgin Atlantic can ill-afford to lose its premium passengers.

The main beneficiary of Balpa's decision to postpone is British Airways – which, coincidentally, yesterday reached a final settlement of its long-running cabin crew dispute.

What began two years ago as a row over changes to rosters, has dragged on through several ballots and two bouts of strikes, which have cost BA more than £150m.

Cabin crew belonging to the Unite union voted to accept a deal that will see staff travel privileges restored.

A British Airways spokesman said: "The skills and professionalism of BA cabin crew are second to none, and we are delighted this dispute is behind us."

During the course of the trouble, the airline pushed through many of the measures it sought, including a reduction of staffing on flights to and from Heathrow and the establishment of a "new fleet" of cabin crew on inferior terms and conditions.

Unite's general secretary, Len McCluskey, said: "We have reached an honourable agreement with BA. The overwhelming acceptance of this deal by cabin crew means that both parties can now move forward together on securing a bright future for the airline."

Virgin Atlantic said: "In the event that we are forced to amend our flight schedules we would be looking to secure alternative equipment and crews from aircraft leasing suppliers."

However, sourcing replacement long-haul planes in the peak month of July looks problematic. During the cabin crew strikes, BA chartered in only short-haul jets.

Virgin Atlantic has avoided strikes throughout its history. Early in 2008, two 48-hour stoppages were called by cabin crew, but the dispute was settled before any action took place.

The airline has endured a lean decade, effectively treading water with an ageing fleet.

Sir Richard Branson, the president of Virgin Atlantic, has made it clear that the airline is up for sale, but so far there is no evidence of a deal taking shape.

Q&A: what you need to know about the strike

When could a strike start?

Trade union legislation requires Balpa to give Virgin Atlantic a week's notice of any industrial action. If a stoppage were announced today, it could not begin until 30 June. The law also stipulates that any strike must begin within four weeks of the ballot result, that is, by 19 July.



How long might it last?

A prolonged strike seems unlikely. Airline operations are, as air-traffic shutdowns and snow at Heathrow have shown, susceptible to anything that interrupts normal operation. Even a two-day strike would cause widespread disruption, not least because planes and pilots would not necessarily be in the right places when it ends. A sequence of 48-hour strikes on different days of the week could severely damage the network, particularly on routes with only one or two services a week.



If I am booked to fly on a strike date, what will happen to my flight?

That depends on the airline's contingency plans, which it has not yet revealed. The impact will depend at least partly on your destination. Virgin Atlantic has three broad types of routes: prestige business services, such as New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo; high-end leisure routes, to California and the Caribbean; and mass-market flights to Florida. Non-striking pilots (about one in seven of the airline's 750 flight crew) are likely to be deployed to the highest-earning services. Destinations such as Los Angeles, with multiple daily flights, could have two departures combined. And the airline is likely to charter-in capacity to cover its Florida routes. But some passengers are likely to be offered only to postpone their trip or get a full refund.



Can I switch to another airline?

Not until strike dates are announced. Virgin Atlantic emphasises that its operations are continuing normally at present. Part of its contingency plans will involve switching passengers to other carriers, but that is most likely on links with plenty of capacity, such as Dubai and Nairobi. Were, say, the once-a-week 747 departure from Tobago to Gatwick to be grounded, BA could not possibly carry more than a fraction of the Virgin passengers.



My trip is booked with Virgin Holidays, not direct with the airline. Does this make any difference?

Yes. Indeed, any traveller who has a Virgin flight as part of a package – whether from Virgin Holidays or another operator – is in a strong position. The holiday firm has a duty to seek alternative transportation, or offer a full refund of the holiday cost. Travellers who have booked flights and accommodation separately, and who are unable to travel because of a strike, may not be able to recover the cost of their stay.

New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all