Leading article: A trade union's flight from sanity

Wednesday 16 December 2009 01:00 GMT

It would appear that turkeys do sometimes vote for Christmas after all. Earlier this week the British Airways cabin crew union held a ballot and chose to mount a 12-day strike over the festive period. BA's management is frantically sorting through thousands of crew and pilot rotas to work out a new schedule and minimise disruption. And yesterday it launched a legal challenge to the union's ballot. But serious inconvenience still looms for one million passengers.

It is possible to have sympathy with the BA crew in that they are being asked to accept hundreds of redundancies, an increased workload and a pay freeze. But they are hardly the only workers being asked to make painful adjustments in these straitened times. And with BA losing £292m in the six months to September (the worst results in the airline's history) savings clearly need to be made. Wait and see is not a credible option. The sudden and protracted decline in the number of profitable business-class passengers over the past year indicates that BA needs an entirely new business model.

The cabin crew union, of course, have a perfect right to demand that management heeds its concerns about restructuring. And the 9 to 1 margin of the vote in favour of a strike indicates a worrying disconnect between management and cabin staff. The team of BA chief executive Willie Walsh is clearly far from blameless.

Nevertheless, industrial action will prove entirely self-defeating. If all flights are grounded for the duration of the strike, BA could forgo between £200m and £300m in revenues. The airline's no-frills competitors are already scrambling to take advantage of its predicament.

But the price of the loss of goodwill for BA and its staff will be still greater. Passengers will not soon forgive the airline if this strike means they are not reunited with their families over Christmas. Many are already resentful of the anxiety the threat of industrial action has caused.

The union claims the management's cuts will undermine the service offered to passengers. But there is one service that air passengers value above all others: reliability. And it is that service which this senseless strike threatens to blow out of the skies.

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