British Airways strike: When will the pilot walkout happen and which flights will be affected?

Passengers whose flights are cancelled are entitled to be flown on the original date, on a rival airline if need be

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 31 July 2019 14:34
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British Airways pilots threaten strike at Gatwick and Heathrow

Passengers booked on September flights on British Airways face uncertainty because of a strike called by pilots at BA.

Over 3,000 members of flight crew who belong to the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) voted in favour of industrial action in a dispute over pay.

The union says: “Nine out of 10 union members voted, with 93 per cent in favour of strikes.”

​Balpa has said they will strike on 9, 10 and 27 September.

But BA interprets the figures differently, saying: “A quarter of our pilots did not vote for strike action.

“We have 4,311 pilots (3,994 based at Heathrow; 317 based at Gatwick); 1,061 did not vote to go ahead.”

What is the dispute about?

Pay. British Airways says it is offering an increase in salaries well above the rate of inflation: an 11.5 per cent rise over three years. BA says: “We are pleased that the Unite and GMB trade unions, which represent nearly 90 per cent of all British Airways colleagues, have agreed to recommend this fair offer.”

The airline also points to the number of job applications from pilots from other carriers, which it says are running at 1,000 per year, as an indication of how well its pilots are treated.

But Brian Strutton, general secretary of Balpa, told The Independent: “It’s not as good as 11.5 per cent – British Airways are actually taking other money away from us. And the point being: 93 per cent of their pilots have said: ‘I want to go on strike’. So it can’t be that good a deal, can it?”

The current dispute covers pilots working at Heathrow and Gatwick. It does not involve the CityFlyer operation based at London City.

What happened in court?

Immediately after the overwhelming vote in favour of a strike, BA, as is now traditional in industrial disputes, sought a High Court injunction against Balpa on the grounds of legal technicalities involving the ballot.

The judge rejected British Airways’ application. The airline’s subsequent appeal was also thrown out.

What is the likely effect?

Assuming the strike does go ahead, the amount of disruption depends how many BA pilots actually stop work. They have not taken industrial action for four decades, so it is impossible to predict behaviour.

A feature of strikes at British Airways over the past decade – mainly involving cabin crew – is that a significant proportion of union members continue to work on stoppage days.

But there will certainly be many cancellations. And they will spread across adjacent days: 8, 11, 26 and 28 September. Flights before the strike dates may be cancelled so that pilots are not “down route” when they take industrial action, and the inbound legs of long-haul flights cancelled on strike dates will not operate.

What routes might be at risk?

The airline is working on its contingency plans, but in order to get as many passengers to their destinations as possible there are some obvious candidates for cancellation – starting with the Singapore-Sydney section of BA’s only Australian route. It consumes a lot of pilot time and alternative carriers are readily available.

Links on which there are frequent flights on British Airways’ partner airlines are also likely to see deep cuts: US points served by American Airlines, Heathrow to Barcelona and Madrid and Heathrow-Doha – where BA’s part-owner, Qatar Airways, has many daily flights.

On very high-frequency links such as Heathrow-Geneva, services could be combined with larger aircraft used on fewer flights.

The airline will endeavour to maintain a near-normal service on some routes that have a combination of high loads and high fares, particular on key long-haul links from Heathrow and Mediterranean links from Gatwick, using non-striking pilots and third-party airlines chartered in to cover.

Routes such as Heathrow-Miami could be particularly prioritised because of the large number of passengers using the link in connection with cruises.

But many of the 700 or so British Airways flights each day could be grounded.

When will cancellations be announced?

BA is pro-actively offering refunds, in order to reduce the scale of its problem, and seeing how much of its schedule it is confident of operating.

When the airline has finalised its plans, passengers whose flights are cancelled are likely to be told a few days ahead.

If my flight is grounded, what will I be offered?

British Airways is obliged, under European air passengers’ rights rules, to get travellers to their destinations as swiftly as possible, buying tickets on other airlines – from easyJet to Emirates – if that is necessary.

The big problem is: many flights are heavily booked in September, a peak month for travel.

The airline also has an unlimited duty of care, providing meals and accommodation until the passenger can be transported to their destination.

But it will deflect claims for “consequential losses,” such as hotel or rental car expenses that cannot be used.

Will I get compensation?

Last year the Civil Aviation Authority was insistent that Ryanair should pay compensation of €250 or €400 per passenger, depending on the destination, to those affected by strikes.

Presumably it will urge any travellers affected by a British Airways strike to do the same; long-haul passengers would be entitled to €600 if their flights are cancelled with less than 14 days’ notice or delayed for over three hours.

Coby Benson, flight delay compensation solicitor at Bott and Co, said: “The pay disputes are well within the airline’s control and the management of disgruntled staff is simply part and parcel of running any business and would not be considered an extraordinary circumstance.”

I can’t afford to wait to find out if my flight is cancelled. Should I book an alternative now?

BA is offering full refunds to passengers on strike dates, enabling travellers to seek flights on other airlines. But already fares on alternative carriers are increasing rapidly, as travellers making fresh arrangements book away from British Airways because of the strike threat. So it would be wiser to wait and insist BA offers you an alternative flight at its expense, not yours.

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Surely a strike would cause untold damage to British Airways’ revenue and profits?

Balpa says: “The cost to BA to settle dispute in full is significantly less than the cost would be of even a single day’s strike action.”

On average, British Airways earns £35m in revenue per day. For each day of a pilots’ strike, the cost could run into tens of millions of pounds – involving lost revenue, additional care costs and buying tickets on other airlines.

Will there be further talks, or further strikes?

Both sides say they are willing to talk, but each blames the other for intransigence.

I sense that British Airways is prepared to take a strike rather than, as BA would see it, cave in.

In the cabin crew dispute a decade ago, and more recently with the Mixed Fleet strikes, the airline has taken a relatively hard line. To offer pilots significantly more than Unite and GMB members have already settled for would cause significant industrial relations problems.

Further strikes cannot be ruled out, and as a result BA will be losing future business. The converse is that fares are likely to be cut to try to stimulate demand after the September strikes.

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