“I’ve had a lot of luck in the last five years, all bad luck.”
So said Sir Rod Eddington, former chief executive of British Airways, the man who guided the airline through the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and an outbreak of the SARS virus 18 months later.
Sir Rod, a laid-back Australian who was liked by almost everyone in the industry, including BA’s arch-rival Sir Richard Branson, was thinking not about 9/11 but about a labor dispute that plagued BA as he prepared to step down in the Aug 2005.
A strike at Gate Gourmet, a contract catering company that supplies meals to BA, spilled over into the airline itself – costing it around £45m in canceled flights.
The relevance of this episode 17 years ago is that it highlighted specific problems facing the BA at Heathrow – where key staff unions had a reputation for being more combative than elsewhere across the country.
As Sir Rod observed at the time: ‘Are you wondering what happened at Gatwick, where we have a very large union? In Birmingham and Manchester? Nothing.”
Following today’s vote by check-in staff who are members of Unite, BA still appears to have an issue with Heathrow.
The airline’s comment today that its Heathrow-based staff rejected an offer accepted by colleagues elsewhere on the network is eerily familiar to Sir Rod’s remarks all those years ago.
Add to this BA’s generally challenging labor relations – a legacy of its past as a state-owned industry.
Union membership is significantly higher in the public sector than in the private sector and it is no coincidence that it is formerly state-owned companies – such as BA, Royal Mail and to a lesser extent BT – that tend to have poorer industry relationships than most private companies.
Union representation among BA workers is significantly higher than among competitors such as Virgin Atlantic, Ryanair and EasyJet, which have always operated in the private sector.
Sir Rod was not the first BA chief executive – and certainly not the last – to complain about the mentality of some staff that they still thought they were working for the government rather than a privately owned company operating in a fiercely competitive environment market operates.
And that competition has intensified in the 35 years since BA’s privatization. It first came from lower-cost, short-haul airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet. This allowed BA to still rely on highly profitable transatlantic routes where Virgin Atlantic was the only significant competitor for many years.
But in the last 10 to 15 years it has also faced more serious competition from financially strong airlines like Emirates on long-haul routes, particularly to and from Heathrow.
Another factor is that disputes at Heathrow often flare up out of nowhere. This is partly because there has historically been competition among unions for membership.
This has sometimes led to unions taking a more aggressive stance to show prospective hires that they are able to negotiate tougher with employers than other unions.
British Airways is not the only airline to face industrial action this summer
A classic of the genre here was an unofficial dispute that exploded in July 2003 – just as the summer holiday season was nearing its peak – when check-in and ticketing staff left after BA introduced an automated magnetic card system.
Again, BA’s system had been introduced at other airports but was opposed by Heathrow workers – with competition for membership between the Transport & General Workers Union and Amicus (which later merged to form Unite) and the GMB union exacerbating the situation aggravated fleetingly. Unite and GMB are the two unions at the center of this latest row.
Now it’s worth noting that BA isn’t the only airline to face industrial action this summer. Even Ryanair and EasyJet, both of which have far better working relationships than BA, face some disruptions in the coming months.
And unions can hardly be blamed for flexing their muscles amid a tight labor market and a shortage of skilled workers – a shortage partly due to airlines arguably more keen to cut costs at the height of the pandemic have made layoffs than necessary.
But it seems that BA has even more specific problems.
BA’s parent company, International Airlines Group, seemed to recognize this when, following a particularly fierce industrial dispute during the pandemic over planned cabin crew job losses due to more generous legacy pension schemes, it contacted Alex Cruz, BA’s former chief executive, who door showed. whose name had become synonymous with cutting costs.
He was replaced by the better-doing Sean Doyle, who admitted very publicly that BA had an urgent job of fixing the airline’s public image.
He and the rest of BA management will be bitterly disappointed that this dispute has now flared up – just as business seemed to be bouncing back after two disastrous summers.
Strike vote shows British Airways still appears to have problem with Heathrow | business news
Source link Strike vote shows British Airways still appears to have problem with Heathrow | business news