What will it be like to fly with British Airways in the future if the airline succeeds in cutting cabin crew costs at Heathrow? That's the pressing question for those of us on the outside looking in, even if most commentators have been waylaid by the scrap between BA's management and Unite, the crew's trade union.
BA says it must take action to stem its losses – the latest figures, for the nine months to 31 December 2009, show an operating loss of £86m. With check-in and baggage handling now comprehensively automated, the company has set its sights on the majority of its 13,400-strong cabin crew, aiming to save £140m by reducing their numbers, freezing pay for two years from 2010, and offering recruits and newly promoted staff less favourable terms.
BA says the changes will not diminish its service, pointing out that the new regime has been in place for some time at Gatwick, where 1,200 of its cabin crew are based. Yet piling extra tasks on a less-rewarded and depleted workforce riven by pay disparity never does much to boost morale and often has a detrimental impact on quality. Given that BA makes its real money in the business and first-class cabins, it's likely that any cuts will be felt most sharply in economy by the ordinary Joe.
BA management moved to cut crew on its Worldwide and Eurofleet flights last November and December – an action that was viewed by the union as a change of existing contracts but was upheld for the company by the High Court last month.
One crew member told me that new working patterns have already had an adverse impact, saying: "On a recent flight to Brussels we had eight passengers in Club Europe and 120 in Euro Traveller. Due to new crew levels, we only had three crew so some passengers didn't get a drink or snack, which they pay for in the ticket and is what sets us apart from low-cost carriers.
"We ran out of time and 42 passengers had to go without. We also didn't have time to clear out the majority of rubbish, which isn't safe because if we'd had to evacuate, people could trip over their rubbish."
In response, BA maintains that it "hasn't seen a significant response of this type across the airline".
BA and its cabin crew are mired in what appears to be a deeply political dispute. Unite claims to have offered savings amounting to more than £100m; BA says the union's figures don't add up. Meanwhile, crew members remain aggrieved – by obtaining a court injunction BA has merely triggered a second huge vote in favour of industrial action. If the crew is to act, Unite must announce any strike dates by 15 March to comply with the law. So if you're due to fly with BA, you'll soon know if you'll be caught in the crossfire.
But are these cuts the thin end of the wedge? If BA faces down cabin crew at Heathrow, breaking the strongest unionised section of its workforce, it would surely become easier to impose more changes in the future.
The airline cites stiff competition from its no-frills rivals as driving the need for change, but its reputation for delivering a quality service is what persuades many to choose the airline over those carriers. Passengers and crew have more common ground than might at first appear.
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