Simon Calder: A joke that is wearing thin for BA's passengers

Saturday 27 February 2010 01:00

Agreed, BA's battle with its cabin crew is the most poisonous dispute in UK aviation history. With every day that the two sides continue to accuse each other of bullying and intimidation, the damage to the reputation of both our national airline and its normally excellent in-flight staff intensifies – and creates more uncertainty for the travel plans of millions and the livelihoods of thousands.

Happily, it is also the funniest industrial relations conflict in living memory: as each side seeks to wreak maximum damage on the other, they maintain with a straight face that they have only the passengers' interests at heart.

Let's start with the name of the union: Unite, an ideal brand to uphold the rights of the working man and women, you might imagine. But not if it is, in fact, a den of "mutual rivalry, hostility and mistrust". Not my words, but those of a High Court judge.

Sir Christopher Holland is the man who rejected a bid from Unite to force BA to go back on the roster changes at the heart of this dispute. His written judgment (which you can read in full at exposes some hilarious dimensions to this dismal conflict.

BA cabin crew are represented by two separate branches within Unite: BASSA and Amicus. Nothing wrong with that – except that they refuse to speak to each other. For a couple of weeks last autumn, it looked as though settlement could emerge when BA's boss, Willie Walsh, and the joint general secretaries of Unite agreed to talks at ACAS. Between 21 September and 2 October, the conciliation service worked energetically – not to bridge the management-union divide, but to try to persuade the warring Unite factions to sit in the same room. But ancient internecine acrinomy prevailed. "There was no meeting between the Union and BA," laments a deadpan Sir Christopher. "The old allegiances have held sway."

Passengers waiting to see if the flights they paid for months ago take off may conclude that Unite is having a laugh at the the travelling public's expense.

Another aspect of the court case may suggest that the union is having a laugh at its members' expense. The case was brought by three individuals. As well as demanding a reversal of the changes, the trio sought damages for breach of contract, in the shape of "compensation for each understaffed flight undertaken".

One plaintiff was a steward named Nigel Stott. It emerged in court that the unfortunate man has been on long-term sick leave since October. "For health reasons, Mr Stott has not participated in a flight subjected to the new regime," Sir Christopher observed drily, "and thus is not presently able to substantiate a claim for damages exceeding the nominal." Unite's hard-working members may chuckle at the irony of inviting the indisposed Mr Stott to give evidence, rather than one of the thousands of cabin crew who have actually experienced the working patterns.

Meanwhile BA is having a laugh at its passengers' expense, with the pathetic options for travellers booked to travel in March – when any strike would begin. The BA flight to Bordeaux that I booked well before the ballot result includes "tax, fees and charges" of £37. That's handy, I thought: although the ticket is non-refundable, I should at least be able to recoup the extras and put them towards a flight on easyJet,and thus avoid uncertainty. The helpful BA operator I spoke to revealed that I would get back a princely £7.20 if I cancel online. How much, I wonder, if I cancel by phone? "Nothing." The airline must be laughing all the way to the bank.

Gruff or graceful – coffee will be served

The venom in the BA/Unite dispute is coalescing around who will work in the event that a strike goes ahead. Earlier this week I ventured that passengers could find their coffee served by a "gruff captain", temporarily swapping the flight deck for the galley. It earned a swift rebuke: "On behalf of my husband, who is one of the Pilot Volunteers you mention, may I pass on that he will serve anyone with a smile."

Such volunteers will offer a "simplified service" alongside cabin crew who choose to work normally – such as "Ottergirl", whose posting on a cabin-crew forum suggests passengers may not be unstintingly grateful:

"We may be in for some horrible days. If it can be my fault that it's snowing, foggy, French air-traffic control is on strike or that the aeroplane is broken, then I'm sure the lack of food could be my fault too. Rational behaviour is not a prerequisite of booking British Airways."

Nor, indeed, of working for it.

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