Plane Talk: British Airways cabin crew dispute adds to impression of airline in crisis

Within a couple of hours of the strike call by some British Airways cabin crew, Geoff Harper and Graham Mitchell had contacted me.

“I am booked to travel on British Airways 1 July from Heathrow to Zurich, return 8 July,” said Geoff. “What should I do?”

“Any indications yet of the likely impact on passengers of the BA strike?”, asked Graham. “Flying to Lisbon from Heathrow on 1 July.”

Unhelpfully, to both gentleman I have to say: wait and see.

The airline vows: “All British Airways customers will be able to fly to their destinations.” But that is not the same thing as saying: “Geoff and Graham, just relax – we guarantee you’ll fly exactly as booked”. 

It looks most unlikely that Geoff’s plans will be affected; Zurich is not a route operated by Mixed Fleet, the cabin crew division in dispute with BA.

While in theory Eurofleet crew could be re-deployed from one of the five Heathrow-Zurich flights to cover for striking staff on another route, I make it a 500-1 shot.

Graham’s trip to Lisbon looks potentially more vulnerable, since I believe the link to the Portuguese capital is one of the Mixed Fleet route – British Airways declines to confirm the list, so I have made an educated guess.

But looking at the fares being charged for the three Heathrow-Lisbon flights on 1 July, loads look very heavy. The cheapest one-way fare is £221. So let’s make that a 50-1 chance.

Even at those long odds, though, and with the racing certainty that most passengers will travel exactly as booked, BA is still set to be damaged by the strike call. 

Travellers, whether they are taking a much-needed holiday or going on an important business trip, really don’t like uncertainty. Everyone accepts that anything from striking French air-traffic controllers to erupting Icelandic volcanoes can ground flights, but passengers like to maximise the chance they will take off.

The timing of the strike by the Unite union looks carefully calculated to put as much pressure as possible on British Airways, while stopping short of jeopardising summer holidays for UK families. 

The first half of July still sees plenty of business travel, which underpins BA’s revenues, and long-haul flights are full with vacationers heading to Europe for summer.

Confidence in British Airways had already taken a dent after last month’s IT outage, which led to more than 700 flights being cancelled.

With discontent over the airline’s initial rejection of some compensation claims after the fiasco, the much-publicised ending of complimentary food and drink on short-haul economy flights, and the airline’s desire for “densification” (packing many more passengers in the same sized plane), some will interpret the latest strike call as evidence that BA’s brand is rapidly eroding.

Yet the airline’s industrial relations are in better shape than those of Air France and Lufthansa. And unlike the French and German giants, BA has decades of experience in responding to ferocious competition on its home turf, from Virgin Atlantic to easyJet and Ryanair.

Long term, British Airways’ prospects look robust. But if the airline could settle with the union sooner rather than later, it would improve the summer outlook for Geoff, Graham and hundreds of thousands of fellow travellers.