'I don't believe in publicly executing loyal people who've made an honest mistake'

BA chief Rod Eddington tells Clayton Hirst how union support helped stop executive sackings after the great Heathrow fiasco

Thursday 18 July 2013 23:53

A month ago, Mike Street's 40-year career at British Airways looked like it was over. After one of BA's worst days, when 8,000 passengers were stranded at Heathrow after a series of blunders, the airline's director of operations was set to lose his job. Rod Eddington, BA's chief executive, launched a review of what went wrong and Mr Street's name was leaked as the executive most likely to get the chop.

But now, in the week after Mr Eddington announced that there would be no sackings for the problems at Heathrow, an unlikely white knight has emerged as Mr Street's saviour: the trade unions.

BA and its three main unions have been at loggerheads for years, rowing over pay, redundancies, pensions and working conditions.

But speaking to The Independent on Sunday, Mr Eddington revealed that it was union officials who convinced him to keep Mr Street on.

"Let me tell you something: two days before the problems struck Heathrow, Mike Street single-handedly got a three-year pay deal with the GMB and the Transport and General Workers Union over check-in staff. The unions told me personally that he was fundamental to getting the deal."

Mr Eddington added: "I don't believe in publicly executing loyal people who have made an honest mistake. It does not encourage people. It forces them to be more risk-averse than they would normally be."

As well as announcing that there would be no sackings as a result of the Heathrow crisis, Mr Eddington revealed on Thursday that BA would hire an extra 200 customer service staff on top of the 216 workers who are currently undergoing training within the group.

The review of what went wrong at Heathrow on 23 August had uncovered a shortage of staff, Mr Eddington said. This, he added, was caused by delays in statutory criminal-record checks on potential employees. "That is why we have decided to recruit an extra 200 staff - to give us a buffer. With the gift of hindsight, we should have recruited earlier."

But staffing wasn't the main reason BA had to cancel 30 flights on that disastrous Monday, Mr Eddington said. Problems were also caused by a combination of bad weather, two emergency landings at Heathrow and problems with a new computer system cataloguing aircraft spares. "We were having problems getting spare parts to fix the aeroplanes," he said.

Designed by German software giant SAP, the computer replaced 150 smaller systems dotted around BA's operations. But it was not functioning properly that Monday, Mr Eddington said, adding that he was preparing to claim compensation from SAP. "Look, I haven't made up my mind [on how big the claim will be]. For the moment I am just saying [to SAP]: fix the damned system. That's my focus right now."

The day of chaos at Heathrow will hit BA's bottom line. "We have apologised to customers and we will compensate them," Mr Eddington said. "I will put the cost of this - and the cost of the lost business - in the public domain when we publish our interim results."

He refused to say how much of a hit BA would take, but the figure is widely thought to be around £10m.

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