19 OCTOBER 2009

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Article from BTNews 19 OCTOBER 2009

COMMENT: British Airways - What Now ?

There is cause for concern that British Airways may be forced to stop flying in the weeks leading up to Christmas due to the cabin crew going on strike.

Two points have to be made.  Firstly that it needs staff members to vote by a majority (some would say a large majority) to take industrial action, and secondly for the most part striking has never been successful, often both parties losing out. 

Take a look at the Unite web site and read some of the press releases.  Depressing.  How is the country to march forward with such utterings!

Some of us can remember “Red Robbo” and the turmoil he caused at British Leyland in the 1970s.  Other factors came into play but the net result was the collapse of the United Kingdom’s home car industry.  The UK still makes motor cars, and even more than in those times, but today production is controlled by foreign owners whose first priority is to satisfy shareholders, not the British workforce.

Could British Airways fall to some foreign predator?  It is an interesting question.  Just like buying cars, people will still fly.

Today’s British Airways is the product of a state airline privatised, but not properly, throwing off the baggage of years of a civil service mentality.  Its pension fund crisis is a the outcome of more than generous pay schemes in the past, early retirement in the case of pilots, and, as with everyone else, people living longer.

Willie Walsh, a former pilot, arrived at British Airways in May 2005 with the reputation as the tough boss of a small airline, Aer Lingus.  He took over from Rod Eddington who had steadied a rocky ship inherited from Rob Ayling, previously a Department of Trade and Industry lawyer.  In those days BA was the self appointed “World’s Favourite Airline”, keen to say so and aggressive in its marketing. 

Whilst Walsh had some initial success in throwing off the yoke of history sadly his efforts have been overtaken firstly with the oil price getting out of control and secondly by the world economic downturn. 

He has stated that it is the worst crisis for the world’s airlines ever although stalwarts of the industry can recall many a very serious problem over the years, 9/11 for instance.  The continued expansion of the so-called “low lost” airlines has not helped, particularly in short haul.  The fact that he lost his experienced commercial director Martin George due to industrial politics was another negative factor and some would say that Walsh not being part of “The Establishment” has been detrimental.

In PR terms BA has hardly won accolades, firstly with the T5 fiasco and now badly explained cost cutting.

BA wants to save £140m from its cabin crew costs and introduce changes to staff practices.  It is pointed out that whilst the average BA cabin crew pay is said to be £29,000 pa with a liberal attitude to allowances, typically Virgin Atlantic is £14,000.  BA has done much in recent years in reducing outdated employment customs but plenty still remain.  Some are still being added.  One could argue that Walsh was weak in allowing flight deck operations for the new London City - New York services to be based at Waterside rather than LCY.  Marketing at that airport is now two-pronged, Manchester for BA Connect, and London for New York.  Bizarre.

According to reports Mr Walsh will meet Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, the joint heads of the Unite union today (Monday 19 October) to try and make progress . 

Let us hope that the Christmas spirit comes early.  A shutdown will not stop business travellers flying, nor for the most part leisure ones either.  Foreign airlines would of course rub their hands together.  A strike is no good for anyone.

MALCOLM GINSBERG

Editor in Chief

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