Simon Calder: The season of ill will towards travellers
Saturday 19 December 2009
"Joyful, all ye nations rise," as the opening verse of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" implores, "Join the triumph of the skies."
Hang on, refrained one million people for four days this week, we're not sure if we can. That was the ludicrous situation that prevailed from the moment the British Airways cabin-crew strike was announced last Monday until the High Court decision on Thursday afternoon that the union's strike ballot was flawed.
Almost everyone was astonished that the union, Unite, chose the nuclear option, aimed at wiping out BA's entire Christmas and New Year schedule from Heathrow and Gatwick.
The airline had spent weeks drawing up contingency plans to operate some flights, flown by pilots who would cross picket lines and cabin crew who were prepared to work through the strike. But until the carrier had worked out exactly which "BA Lite" flights would take off, it could not offer refunds. Any passengers who bought an alternative flight will now be out of pocket.
Each day that the saga dragged on, the stress on prospective travellers increased.
While some people are relaxed about last-minute plans, even the most laid-back traveller with a priceless family gathering or long-awaited winter holiday can be forgiven for getting anxious when, with five days to go, it was still unclear if the airline's departures for the year would end abruptly next Monday evening.
What we know now that we didn't know last Monday morning: how poisonous relations are between the airline and its cabin crew; how well rewarded, compared with their counterparts at other airlines, are BA's cabin crew; and how it feels to be a standby passenger for four days not knowing where you will be at Christmas or New Year.
In the midst of this venomous dispute, hundreds of Flyglobespan staff and thousands of the airline's passengers lost, respectively, jobs and holidays as a result of their airline's collapse. Some of those holidaymakers were stranded in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh.
Had they wandered into the five-star Renaissance Hotel, they may have bumped into some British Airways cabin crew. After working the five-hour overnight flight from Gatwick, BA staff get two or three nights in the hotel, together with £85 per day to cover meals and phone calls home.
Good luck to them: BA cabin crew are professionals providing excellent service, who have negotiated excellent terms. You won't meet any easyJet staff from Gatwick on the Sinai peninsula, because they fly out and back in a day. And the highly competitive aviation market will decide the premium that passengers are prepared to pay for BA. Long may healthy rivalry prevail.
As the recriminations begin, though, I am not convinced that BA management will be warmly congratulated on suppressing this strike. The overwhelming cabin-crew vote was an expression of anger against an airline that is currently losing around £20 a second, yet which has failed to persuade staff of the importance of radical change.
Unless the airline can achieve harmony, some passengers will in future plan important trips on airlines that enjoy more cordial relations with their staff.
Neither do I expect to be warmly welcomed on my now-reinstated flight to Egypt: "BA management lackey" is one of the more polite responses I have received from cabin crew unhappy at my comments. Anyway, wherever you are heading, I hope you arrive happily and safely.
A holy trinity?
Rarely do three entities as divergent as the Socialist Workers Party, the climate-change lobby and dozens of airlines unite in appreciation of industrial action. But the interests of this trinity converged over the BA strike.
Cheery vendors of Socialist Worker handed out leaflets at the cabin crew mass meeting at Sandown Park on Monday, demanding a "Strike over Xmas to defeat Walsh". That was exactly what the union promised.
The plan to ground two-fifths of the flights from the world's aviation hub for a couple of weeks was welcome news for the Copenhagen climate-change conference, since it would have delivered a tangible reduction in the amount of CO2.
And Christmas arrived early for Air France, Lufthansa and squadrons of other airlines, when desperate BA passengers bought extra flights; last Tuesday, Virgin Atlantic sold one long-haul flight every 15 seconds, while easyJet offered BA's gold-card holders free "Speedy Boarding" as a bribe for switching to the no-frills airline.
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