Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way
Flying into the perfect storm?
Saturday 27 January 2007
Consensus is rare in aviation, but airlines agree on one thing: happy cabin crew equals happy passengers. The people who comprise the public face of British Airways showed with an overwhelming vote that they are far from cheerful. Barring a last-minute deal, cabin crew plan to walk out on Tuesday and Wednesday, grounding most BA flights and equalling misery for as many as 200,000 travellers. Yet as the airline's chief executive and former pilot Willie Walsh steers into the clouds of industrial action, silver-linings abound. This is not so much a strike, more an opportunity.
It may look as though BA's long-suffering passengers and shareholders are enduring a perfect storm. The tempest began on 10 August with the overnight introduction of draconian new security rules. Hundreds of flights were cancelled in the subsequent meltdown at Heathrow. In December, BA brought a whole new meaning to the term "left luggage", by leaving tens of thousands of bags behind.
These events, which to a large extent were beyond BA's control, cost around £200m. The forthcoming strike could represent a similar hit. Yet BA's senior management regard it as an investment. Taking on cabin crew, who represent one in three of its staff, is a calculated risk. The prospective rewards from toughing it out are lower costs and a stronger hand in negotiations with other staff such as baggage handlers.
While BA says it hopes for "a negotiated settlement before next Tuesday", Mr Walsh was hired to square up to the unions and deliver greater efficiency and lower costs. He is charged with making the airline "fit for purpose", to use the vogue phrase - to allow it to compete with leaner rivals. And he has been given carte blanche by the airline's board to take on the cabin crew. The only settlement BA will countenance is one that extracts significant concessions.
After safety, airlines fret most about strikes. In an industry where a small group of workers can rapidly ground aircraft, even the hint of a walk-out is anathema. In particular, the business travellers who bankroll aviation dislike uncertainty. BMI, Virgin Atlantic, Air France and Lufthansa are seizing the opportunity to poach premium passengers from Britain's biggest airline. Those travellers will have the chance to find out how good BA's rivals are. At Gatwick, where all BA short-haul flights will be cancelled, easyJet can demonstrate it is the dominant airline in the beautiful south (of London). BA bosses are prepared to bite all these bullets.
Cabin crew, meanwhile, have the unfamiliar opportunity to catch up with the gardening instead of spending a couple of days in China or California. The women and men who do much to help BA stand out from its rivals as a world-class airline are extremely upset. "We have been arrogantly pushed around and treated as a cheap, disposable corporate commodity that can easily be replaced for far too long. Well, not any more."
They are particularly aggrieved at what they see as a heavy-handed attitude to absence. Sickness levels are well above the national average, but they say there are good reasons for this. For example, if an emergency landing takes place, crew are required to yell instructions at passengers. As with Radio 4 announcers, so with cabin crew: you can't turn up for work with a bad throat.
The strikers (that's cabin crew, not Radio 4 announcers) are also concerned about the erosion of some spectacularly good terms and conditions. These were assiduously negotiated in the olden days when fares were sky-high and BA staff could be hosed down with cash to keep them sweet - and in a fair approximation to clover. The union says: "No one wants to be in our position." Well, cabin crew on Ryanair and other low-cost airlines wouldn't mind some of the perks.
From the passenger's perspective, the bad old days have turned into the good new days. BA can match the low fares we now enjoy only if its cost base is cut drastically. Allowing the strike to go ahead shows Mr Walsh and his colleagues are deadly serious about pushing through change.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN RUNWAY
Thousands of passengers will enjoy an unexpected strike dividend. Travellers booked from Heathrow with other airlines have an opportunity to enjoy the temporarily wide open spaces of Terminals 1 and 4. And whichever airline they choose, the chances are aircraft will be able to take off or land without waiting in an interminable queue.
The environment gets a break, too. Fewer flights will operate to, from and within the UK; and other airlines' planes should be fuller than average, thanks to migrating BA passengers. (Against that, the airline is preparing to dispatch dozens of empty Jumbo jets across the globe so that they are ready to bring back passengers once the strike is over.)
Regardless of the strike, plenty of planes will be flying in BA colours. GB Airways from Gatwick and British Mediterranean from Heathrow plan a full schedule of BA franchise flights. The soon-to-be ditched BA Connect regional operation should run as normal, as will Loganair's BA-branded flights in Scotland. And most of BA's long-haul flights from Gatwick will go ahead. All this assumes that an 11th-hour truce is not reached, the prospect of which, as I write this on Thursday, seems as unlikely as a burst of warm weather.
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