British Airways has encountered turbulence from cabincrew and ash clouds
British Airways has encountered turbulence from cabincrew and ash clouds

Simon Calder: BA - 'stalinist' bosses and safety concerns

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:04

Things, you might fondly have imagined until this week, can only get better. After the pantomime of the past fortnight, with British Airways securing an injunction against the latest cabin-crew strike on the most spurious of technicalities, the Socialist Workers' Party's uninvited intervention in negotiations and the running commentary on the talks via Twitter by the joint leader of Britain's biggest union, you might have imagined that the stoppage would constitute some sort of final act, ending in a settlement that allowed BA to rebuild.

A study at the evidence provided by the cabin-crew union, suggests otherwise. A careful reading of Unite's publicity suggests that British Airways and its excellent staff will emerge much diminished, both financially and reputationally, and with abysmal working relationships.

* When I worked for BA as a cleaner at Gatwick, I recognised my position at the very foot of the aviation food chain. Next up, according to the scurrillous gossip around the airport, were stewardesses from a certain airline (not BA). Above them in the pecking order came the loaders.

The men and women who lift the bags on and off the planes came unwittingly to the fore last week when protesting cabin crew on an open-top bus chanted, to the tune of the Andean folk tune El Condor Pasa: "I'd rather date a loader than a scab". Except that "date" wasn't the word they used. Their colleagues on the ramp may not share their amusement at what can most generously be regarded as a back-handed compliment.

The airline's engineers, too, were unimpressed when the union demanded assurances about cabin-crew rosters on new aircraft, to avoid existing staff being obliged to work aboard "an ageing fleet of old, broken, ill-maintained aircraft".

BA flies an older fleet than most carriers. As the graph shows, its low-cost rivals operate much newer planes and even Aeroflot has a fleet less than half the age of BA. Older aircraft are in no sense unsafe, since they are impeccably maintained by BA's engineers. But Professor Martin Upchurch of Middlesex University Business School believes "an embedded culture of bullying and authoritarianism" by the airline's top management could jeopardise safety.

In a report commissioned by Unite and sent to BA's investors, the Professor of International Employment Relations warns:

"The reporting of 'errors' may diminish if staff feel vulnerable and insecure."

Many prospective passengers have already walked away from BA into the arms of its rivals because they fear flights from Heathrow could be threatened for months. Those still undeterred may be alarmed by Professor Upchurch's implication that newly recruited cabin crew could increase risk:

"Employing newer, younger staff on lower terms and conditions may not only affect employee commitment (and customer satisfaction) but also have implications for safety when evaluated through 'critical incidents' or 'human error' reporting."

A spokesman for BA said:

"Safety of our customers and crew are our highest priority and we make no compromises. All of our cabin crew are trained to the highest standards and meet all regulatory requirements."

Professor Upchurch also describes the use of disciplinary action against cabin crew as "being reminiscent of the worse [sic] aspects of methods used by Stalinist secret police".

Have cabin crew really been subject to torture, deportation to labour camps or summary execution? British Airways denies it. And neither does the airline plan to change its name to Stalinair.

The strike solution: a rare medium

The outlandish dispute involving BA and its cabin crew requires a supernatural solution. I recommend British Airways and the cabin-crew join hands to make contact with the Icelandic medium who, on this page last week, correctly predicted the Eyjafjallajkull volcano would cease from erupting and grounding flights on Sunday.

It did. Gudjon Arngrímsson of Icelandair spent the day at a friend's house about 50km from the volcano: "I had a great view of Eyjafjallajkull and saw the smoke get smaller and smaller. Just before midnight you could almost hear the final 'puff'. All that was left was a tiny white steamball."

Just what the dispute needs.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments