Pay? Rosters? Staffing? None of the above is at the heart of the bitter dispute between British Airways and its cabin crew. I can reveal that the conflict is rooted in something more, well, cultural. Not the ideological clash between staff with a tradition of delivering excellent service versus a macho management seemingly bent on cost-cutting, but the popular dairy product made from cultured milk. Yes, this is the first time a union has confronted an airline over the price of yoghurt.
A word of explanation, if I may. As the dispute intensified between BA and the cabin-crew union, Unite, journalists were briefed by both sides. BA let it be known that the airline was ready for a confrontation with the trade union, while Unite established a website aimed at helping the media understand the depth of stewards' and stewardesses' anger at management. And it is this briefing (which you can read in full at www.bit.ly/BAUnite, to decide whether or not I am being fair) that reveals the extent of BA's alleged poor treatment of cabin crew. The blunt truth, according to Unite, is that "crew's meal allowances are taxed and don't cover the cost of their overseas trips". The union contends BA sends cabin crew to the ends of the earth but then declines to give them enough cash to be able to eat. Unite cites an example that "One crew member paid £15 for a yoghurt in Tokyo."
Outrageous. While flying man or woman cannot live by fermented dairy products alone, how can BA possibly short-change crew by despatching them to a place where a simple tub of raspberry, black cherry or natural yoghurt can set them back £15? I had to find out how badly BA let down the long-suffering crew on its daily 747 from Heathrow to the Land of the Rising Strawberry Yoghurt. The answer is that cabin crew on their rest days in Tokyo are paid the equivalent of only 11.3 yoghurts. That means if they spend £15 on a morning yoghurt, only £155 remains for lunch and dinner.
How does BA ever get anyone to work on the Heathrow-Narita flight? Perhaps because crew receive a further 51 yoghurts (£765) in the course of the four-day trip from Heathrow for "additional allowances" on top of their salary. In the unevent that they have any change left, they are allowed to pocket the difference, and need never submit receipts. For comparison, the allowances paid to Virgin Atlantic cabin crew on the same route amount to £230.
No-one disputes the heavy physical toll that working all night on a 12-hour flight can bring; it must make you feel like a strained tzatziki past its sell-by date. Nor would anyone begrudge the cabin crew's right to proper rest – and refreshment – before the long-haul home. But the unqualified assertion that "crew's meal allowances are taxed and don't cover the cost of their overseas trips" is tosh. In reality, meal allowances, particularly in the case of London-Tokyo, are absurdly generous, which is one reason why it is the trip that Heathrow-based cabin crew seek above all others.
The case of the £15 yoghurt has the opposite effect to that intended. It makes the cabin crew look grasping. It makes BA managers look feeble, for happily signing the cheques. And it makes you and me, the travelling public who have been inadvertently subsidising such nonsense for years, look gullible for paying for these £15 yoghurts.
This week I happened to fly on the three biggest airlines serving the UK: BA on Monday, Ryanair on Tuesday and easyJet on Wednesday. All were 90-minute flights crewed with friendly, professional staff. On Ryanair and easyJet, the crew were on "four-sector" days with only 25 minutes between trips. Too short, I reckon; they deserve an hour off. In contrast, BA short-haul crew at Heathrow are entitled to a minimum of two hours and 50 minutes off after landing back at Terminal 5. They can be asked to reduce this by 35 minutes, but only on payment of several £15 yoghurts.
This messy dispute has exposed some unappetising truths about the way BA spends the cash it takes from passengers. Whether you are selling travel or dairy products, making your customers feel foolish can turn sour – and shorten your shelf life.
A yen for an appetising meal?
For the benefit of all travellers, I had to establish: why is yoghurt so spectacularly expensive in Japan? And is there a saying in Tokyo to rival "It'll cost you an arm and a leg" in signifying something very expensive along the lines of "It'll cost you a low-fat yoghurt". I demanded an explanation from Kylie Clark of the Japan National Tourism Organisation in London. "A four-pack of 80g pots of Moringa Aloe Vera yoghurt – a very popular flavour in Japan – costs 168 yen (£1.25)."
After a 6,000-mile trip the last thing you might want to do is stay on your feet for lunch, but Ms Clark outlines the benefits: "Head for Uogashi Nihon-ichi. It's a stand-up sushi restaurant, with 18 branches in Tokyo. Plates are only 75 yen each (55p)."
And for dinner? "Try Yoshinoya, a Japanese chain that specialises in 'beef bowls'; this is rice topped with thin slices of beef and onions cooked in a soy-based sauce. A regular-size bowl cost 380 yen until January when they dropped it to 300 yen (£2.13). They also do grilled salmon with a side order of beef for 530 yen (£3.75). It's incredible value."