Leading article: Industrial action will be a disaster for British Airways

A strike would inflict grave damage on the airline's reputation

Related Topics

The threatened strike by British Airways cabin crew has, unsurprisingly, taken on a political dimension. It does not take a political genius to work out that strikes in a pre-election period are potentially toxic for a serving government. The Conservative chairman, Eric Pickles, has sought to embarrass Labour by pointing out that it has received £11m from the Unite union, which represents BA crew, since 2007.

Yet, despite the financial links, it is a something of a stretch for the Tories to suggest that Labour is in the pockets of the unions. For Labour, the votes of disgruntled holidaymakers far outweigh the need to maintain good relations with the unions, which is why Gordon Brown gave an interview yesterday in which he said this weekend's planned industrial action would be "unjustified and deplorable".

The Prime Minister has been condemned in some quarters for appearing to side with BA's management. But that does not make his verdict wrong, for this seems to be a case of union blindness that might have been lifted directly from the 1970s.

It is hard to overstate the weakness of BA's financial situation. The airline lost £400m in the last full financial year and £342m in the nine months to December 2009. Business passengers, which traditionally generate the bulk of the airline's profits, have fallen dramatically since the recession broke and are showing no signs of returning. BA's staffing overheads are too high. And because the airline is in competition with some ruthless cost-cutting rivals, action to bring these down cannot be delayed.

This should be bearable. BA's cabin crew are well remunerated in comparison with the employees of other airlines. And the extent of the airline's non-staff economies so far has been to stop serving food on some short-haul flights. There is scope here for efficiency savings.

The union should not expect much public sympathy if they withhold their labour this weekend. The two-year pay freeze that BA intends to impose is no different from what tens of thousands of people across the British economy are being forced to endure as the price for keeping their jobs. And workers everywhere are being asked to cope with cuts in total staff numbers.

This action could backfire on the union. Since the union voted to strike last December, BA's management has been developing contingency plans. Some 1,000 individuals from elsewhere in the company have been trained to work as cabin crew to cover striking workers. And BA says it hopes to run a 60 per cent service this weekend, even if the industrial action goes ahead.

Yet this is not to argue that the strike cannot inflict grave damage. BA has no God-given right to exist. Air passengers have greater choice than ever before. The company's lifeblood is not its landing slots or its size, but its reputation. And what the union seems likely to undermine is not the company's management, but BA's reputation for reliability. Serious harm has already been inflicted by the strike that was threatened last Christmas but called off at the last minute on a legal technicality.

Whatever his true feelings about where blame for this breakdown in relations lies, Mr Brown should press behind the scenes for a resolution. Any form of settlement is better than industrial action. But the fact remains that, of the two sides, it is the union which urgently needs to come back down to earth.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yvette Cooper campaigning in London at the launch of Labour’s women’s manifesto  

I want the Labour Party to lead a revolution in family support

Yvette Cooper
Liz Kendall  

Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

Steve Richards
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine