Bumper pay deals from a bygone era threaten BA's future

Since the no-frills revolution began, the airline's extravagant cost base has been exposed

The a cappella group with the Christmas No 1 in 1983 were The Flying Pickets – so it is perhaps appropriate that a dispute so rooted in Eighties industrial strife involves cabin crew picketing rather than flying. With BA and the cabin crew unions agreeing on nothing beyond their belief in the airline's premium brand, they have set about crushing one million holiday dreams in preparation for the industrial dispute of the decade.

The origins of the conflict pre-date Virgin Atlantic's birth in 1984, when Stelios Haji-Ioannou (founder of easyJet) was still a student at the London School of Economics. In the early 1980s the unions won extraordinary concessions from a compliant management. "We used to hose the cabin crew down with cash every time they complained," said a former senior manager for BA. Thanks to their shop stewards' negotiating skills, British Airways cabin crew based at Heathrow are at the very top of their earnings league.

Besides salaries that are the envy of their counterparts at other airlines, BA cabin crew enjoy remarkable perks. On a return trip to Tokyo, they stand to earn more in allowances than Ryanair cabin crew earn as basic pay in a month – with extra pay known as "box payments" for flying very long-haul services, even though rest space is provided on board. Should the inbound flight be diverted to another UK airport because of poor weather in London, the cabin crew automatically qualify for two days' rest at the city they land at, and are therefore unavailable to operate the flight back to base. Passengers can expect to be bussed back to Heathrow from Newcastle or Cardiff.

In the olden days, the airline's management could allow such generous conditions to prevail because of the lack of alternatives for passengers; BA enjoyed a captive market, with the only competition coming from similar high-cost airlines. But since the no-frills revolution began, the airline's extravagant cost base has been exposed by more efficient rivals.

BA's rivals can barely believe their luck. As soon as news of the strike call emerged from the mass meeting, passengers desperate to travel over Christmas and New Year started bidding for the few seats remaining, pushing fares to extraordinary levels. Flybe, part-owned by BA, had already launched an email campaign urging passengers to "beat the strike", and promising "Flybe won't leave you stranded this Christmas".

BA is keen to emphasise that it will conduct business as usual before the strike begins. Indeed, at 12.30pm today, two British Airways pilots will fly from London City airport to Shannon, spending around an hour in the air. Then they will leave the aircraft and go to a hotel for the night while replacement flight crew take the Airbus to New York. As they rest, they may well reflect that such cosy agreements could be next on the list after BA management concludes its conflict with cabin crew.

While the 4x4s queued politely to enter the car park at Sandown Park, members of the Socialist Workers Party offered the cabin crew leaflets calling for a "strike over Christmas to defeat Walsh". The leaflet asserted: "A victory at BA would not only be a triumph for the staff involved, it would also boost workers everywhere."

It concluded: "We need a genuine working-class political alternative."

A week from today, BA cabin crew will find themselves in the unfamiliar position of switching from the First and Club class cabins to the frontline of the class struggle.

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