British Airways: a breach of confidence?


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British Airways was once regarded as a national champion, a powerful symbol of the country’s commercial prowess and – as the airline itself puts it – “timeless British values ​​and the strengths of modern Britain”.

Now, however, it is a company in crisis – struggling to cope with the enormous financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, its relations with the government are apparently broken and in conflict with its own employees.

There is no doubt that BA, like other airlines, has been significantly affected by the closings and border closings associated with the pandemic. For weeks, he has only flown a handful a day, while most of his fleet is parked.

But it was BA’s response to the crisis that created an atmosphere within the company that staff described as toxic and provoked a political reaction.

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Willie Walsh, CEO of IAG: IAG wants to launch a major restructuring program at BA

In late April, its parent company, International Airlines Group, announced plans to implement a major restructuring program at BA, which could result in up to 12,000 layoffs. He said he would start formal consultations with his unions, Unite, GMB and Balpa.

In launching this process, BA has stated that it wishes to reach agreement on the proposals – which would also include significant changes to the terms and conditions of the remaining staff. But he warned that if an agreement could not be reached, it would force the problem – by giving them advance notice and offering them new contracts.

This apparent ultimatum caused a bitter flaw with the unions. Unite and GMB are currently refusing to participate in formal consultations. Balpa has signed up with the company, but now says negotiations are “hanging by a thread.”

For cabin crew, there is not only the threat of layoffs, but also the prospect of big pay cuts for long-time staff – in some cases more than 50%. Many concerned believe that society is using the current crisis to impose the changes it has wanted to make for years.

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BA union Unite says BA is using Covid-19 crisis for “drastic and permanent job cuts”

BA’s longest-standing crews have contracts which, by modern standards, are relatively generous. They date back to a time when the airline industry was less fiercely competitive, before the emergence of low-cost airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet forced older airlines to cut costs and change their business models.

In 2010 BA entered into a bitter conflict with Unite over plans to revise cabin crew contracts. The dispute lasted two years and involved 22 days of strikes. In the end, a settlement was reached, under which existing staff retained most of their privileges – but the new members were placed on lower contracts, with lower wages.

Now, Unite says BA is using the Covid-19 crisis as a cover to make “drastic and permanent cuts to jobs, wages and working conditions” at a time when collective action is not an option . The union is waging a large-scale campaign against what it calls “betrayal” of its workers by the company.

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British Airways says it “faces the deepest structural change in its history”

The campaign has garnered some high-level political support. One of BA’s fiercest critics is Conservative MP and Chair of the Select Transportation Committee, Huw Merriman.

He says the way the staff at the company have been treated is “appalling.” “It’s the equivalent of carrying a gun on someone’s head,” he says. “It’s really sad to see an iconic brand being dragged into the gutter by its management.”

When the layoff plans were first announced, Balpa came to the bargaining table. Initially, the company did not threaten to “fire and re-hire” pilots if they did not accept new conditions. But at the end of last week, that changed – and the pilots received the same ultimatum that other employees were already facing.

Brian Strutton, Balpa’s secretary general, said the move “seemed to be a kick in the teeth for those who had negotiated in good faith.” The union is still in discussions with BA – but says the negotiations are “hanging on a thread” and could fail at any time.

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Few in the air travel industry expect a rapid recovery

Meanwhile, many pilots reacted furiously. A BA captain told the BBC, “I wouldn’t say there was a lot of confidence before. There are even fewer now. ” Another described the atmosphere within the company as “terrible”.

“I am absolutely amazed at the enormous outburst of anger among our members,” said Mr. Strutton. “There is outrage and despair in the way leaders run the business they once loved to work for.”

A number of pilots have also raised concerns about the possibility that the line may have an impact on safety – concerns about their jobs and their mortgages can distract pilots in the cockpit and potentially affect their mental health.

All of this made BA look like a besieged company. Great anger also seems to be directed at Willie Walsh, the CEO of the parent company IAG, widely regarded as the architect of the planned cuts.

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Quarantine rules will “torpedo” chances of resuming flights in July, says Walsh

The airline itself insists that the industry “is facing the most profound structural change in its history”. He says he is taking action now to protect as many jobs as possible – and that he wants to work with unions to mitigate the impact of any change. Although BA has large cash reserves, it currently consumes £ 20 million every day – and with the majority of its fleet anchored, there is very little cash coming in.

He is also arguing with the government over the introduction of a 14-day quarantine period for travelers arriving in the UK – which, according to Walsh, has “torpedoed” the possibility of resuming flights in July.

Few people in the industry expect a rapid recovery. According to the International Air Transport Association, air traffic is unlikely to return to last year’s levels until 2023. Carriers around the world are shrinking – and BA’s direct competitors such as Easyjet, Ryanair and Virgin Atlantic are all planning thousands of layoffs.

But what sets BA apart is the response to its actions – and the palpable resentment now directed against a brand that once invoked national pride.


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