The fresh round of strike action voted for by BA crew is probably going to attract little sympathy in these days of austerity. The general public has little appetite for strike action which may well have a direct impact upon their travelling plans and one which will cost a FTSE company millions in lost revenue. To the casual observer it may seem as though the crew are simply behaving like spoilt children, striking because they are in danger of losing their travel privileges.
I never worked for BA. I would have given my right arm to work for them during my flying days, I worked for their closest rivals, however BA are the only airline to stipulate that one’s uncorrected and corrected vision must be of a certain level, unlike other airlines who are happy to accept myopics who can reach an acceptable standard with the help of contact lenses. I therefore would have failed the medical and thus never bothered wasting my time applying. Had I worked for BA I would undoubtedly still be working for them now; at the time I flew, their salary, contracts, terms and conditions were unbeatable, the gold-standard for the industry.
Having seen the way BA treated their staff, compared to the staff at lesser airlines I never had any sympathy for the inevitable complaints that I inevitably encountered. BA didn’t indulge in any of the shady rostering practices that went on at one particular charter outfit I had the misfortune to work for, indeed when I switched from flying for a charter outfit to a highly respectable scheduled carrier out of Heathrow, I didn’t have an awful lot of time for many of the complaints of my fellow crew either. They had absolutely no idea what it was like to work for a less scrupulous airline. Those of us who had previous flying experience under our belts, bit our lips and kept quiet, grateful for having infinitely superior terms and conditions to what we had previously encountered.
For example, I worked for one airline for a considerable period of time without the security of a permanent contract. I was employed for season after season on a renewable temporary contract. This meant that any time taken off sick was unpaid. When working at 36,000 feet in an enclosed environment and close contact with hundreds of people, you were exposed to considerably more contagion. Most people who contract a stinking cold will soldier on into work regardless. Illness and ailments are magnified when working at altitude with reduced oxygen and no recourse to fresh air. Time and time again we were warned not to work if we had a rotten cold or flu. Not only was it off-putting to passengers in terms of food-handling and general appearance, but more importantly, flying whilst suffering from blocked sinuses often results in a perforated eardrum, requiring several weeks off flying duties. Given that a day’s pay was deducted for sickness, a bullying return-to-work style interview, staff often risked their health and those of others in order to ensure that at the end of the season their contract would be renewed. I was on a flight which developed a problem, needed to return to base and ended up in a highly unusual emergency evacuation due to a suspected fire in the undercarriage. My colleague dislocated his shoulder whilst busting open one of the exits which had jammed. He needed to take a few weeks off active flying, this sickness went unpaid.
Absolutely none of this went on at BA, in short they treated their staff properly, how they ought to be treated, the staff were paid exceedingly well and didn’t have to endure any of the exhausting rostering patterns that went on elsewhere. I’ll never forget almost lobbing a cup of tea at the moaning BA steward on a Manchester flight once, when he complained about his “3 sector day shocker” involving three half-hour flights between Gatwick, Manchester and Paris. At the time, I was deadheading back to Gatwick following a 10 hour flight from Mexico which had been delayed for 3 hours due to technical problems, when we got back to Gatwick we still had all the flight paperwork and de-briefing to complete, I then had to drive home (having been up for 36 hours) and check in the next morning for a quick Luxor and back.
On another occasion, a colleague of mine went into the office to ask for a compassionate request, that she wasn’t rostered any work for Easter Sunday. Her mother, a devout Christian had died, and they were having her ashes interred after the Easter Sunday service. The response “Can’t you do it another time, Easter is one of our busiest periods?!”. By contrast another friend of mine was fortunate enough to get a job with BA. Her father died during her initial training period. What did BA do? They instantly arranged a car to drive her across the country to see her family, gave her a month off on full-pay and put whatever assistance they could at her disposal, telling her not to worry about work until she felt able.
In short, BA treated their crew with respect and set the mould for any decent respectable employer. Then came the advent of lo-cost airlines. I always felt desperately sorry for BA and other scheduled carriers in this respect. I remember looking at Easyjet’s battered old 727s in 1995 and scoffing along with others, that these airlines would never last, passengers liked their frills! In some respect we were right, airlines like Virgin Express, Debon Air, and even the UK’s third most popular airline, Air UK, succumbed to market pressure. The problem is that Heathrow does not lend itself to the low-cost operating model, both in terms of landing fees and the short turnaround times which are simply not possible in an airport of Heathrow’s scale. Scheduled carriers did their best to cut corners where they could, gone were the days of the hot meals and complimentary drinks, but simply in terms of operating costs, scheduled short-haul carriers were at a massive disadvantage.
It became clear that something had to give and clearly the days of the BA crew earning more than a qualified accountant or lawyer were numbered. For those who think I am exaggerating, a Purser on a BA flight would be earning in the region of £50K in the old days. Those on the old contracts were given massive incentives to leave or retire early and newer contracts on considerably less money were introduced, much to the horror of BASSA. To the observer, this seemed reasonable and realistic, everyone I knew at BA earnt eye-watering amounts of cash for doing a far less arduous job than the one we were engaged in. It was a hangover from the days that BA was a state-owned carrier. I’m not advocating that crew should be on the minimum wage, indeed I cannot believe how little crew now earn compared to when I flew. I was lucky admittedly in that I worked for an airline who paid me an extra few thousand for each European language I spoke, which meant in turn that I was always rostered the lucrative routes and trips which bumped up my allowances. These days the starting salary is around £14,000, one airline I worked for, I began at £7,000.
Cabin crew do a difficult job, it’s more than ensuring that the lipstick matched the colour of the hatband (yes, that was stipulated in the uniform regulations which formed part of the contract) for which no amount of training can prepare you. It’s not all cocktails round the pool in Barbados, particularly on short-haul. I was fortunate to have experienced both long-haul and short-haul flying, but neither option is as glamorous as the image of the girls in red on the 80s advert might suggest. (Incidentally that skirt did absolutely nothing for your hips and blondes look terrible in bright red jammy lipstick).
Some of the incidents that happened in my career such as an emergency evacuation and a cabin decompression you can be trained for, others required nerves of steel. Since having flown professionally and had a few hair-raising incidents, I’m now much more of a nervous flyer than ever I was. Apart from the scary occasions of bad weather, in my time I’ve had to cope with attempting to put out a fire in the rear toilets (banning smoking probably one of the most short-term dangerous measures ever), doing CPR in shifts for 40 minutes on an obviously deceased passenger in full view of his distressed children and grandchildren, attempting to restrain a passenger suffering from heroin withdrawal and without his methadone, who was trying to open a door in-flight and walking up the aisle on take-off, plane-loads of drunken teenagers who’d spent the entire day in the airport bar before catching their 11pm flight to Ibiza, medical emergencies and bizarre situations galore. It was fun, not the most intellectually challenging job admittedly, but it did require bucket loads of common sense, an ability to think quickly on your feet and at times, more front than Blackpool! Sometimes I think I ought to write a book, so over-flowing is my arsenal of anecdotes. In short I had a ball, I loved my flying career, but it was jolly hard work and I earned every penny.
What needs to be remembered is with that kind of schedule any sort of family life or life outside the world of flying is impossible or requires intricate planning at the very least. Which brings me on to the issue of the travel concessions and the heart of the strike action by BA crew.
I had no time or sympathy for the initial strike by the BA crew. Reducing crew from 15 down to 14 on a long-haul flight is a negligible and sensible change. It is still well in excess of the legal minimum crew required, either 1 crew member per 50 passengers or 1 per door/exit. The legal minimum crew on a 767 in charter configuration carrying 320 passengers is 8. We used to fly with 9 if we were lucky. By comparison a BA 767 has seats for 144 passengers in economy. Even if you count Business and First Class, that is still considerably fewer passengers than we used to carry with infinitely more staff. Our long-haul flights were busy, often you didn’t stop, for the entire duration of the flight, with service after service, but the same cannot be said of the crew on a BA flight. One less crew member means, in effect that either one crew member will need to serve a few more rows, or perhaps, god forbid, the Cabin Service Director, might, shock horror, have to get up and actually serve a passenger some coffee! That gripe is totally unfounded, and typical of the BA mentality, reinforced by BASSA. As for bringing the salaries of new members of crew more into line with other airlines and at a more realistic level, clearly this is problematic in terms of creating a two-tier effect, but like every other private company, BA needs to cut costs if it is to stand any chance of survival. The previous salary levels, whilst wonderful for those who enjoyed them, I had a friend who as BA crew earnt more than pilots for other airlines, were completely unsustainable and out of all proportion to the skills that were required for the job.
Friends of mine work for other departments in BA and feel very strongly that they have had to take a pay freeze and reductions in staff, therefore it is only fair that the crew take their share. A quick check tells me that crew flying long-haul on a 4 day Tokyo get £935 on top of their basic salary. A 4 day Cologne would earn me an extra £1.40 per hour on top of my basic salary. A 4 day North America at a different airline earnt me an extra £150. A whopping 21 day, Bahrain -Singapore-Sidney, involving bullet flights whilst stationed in Bahrain to places like Sri Lanka or the Maldives would earn me £900 (paid in travellers cheques). BA’s proposal is to replace their current system of expenses with a flat monthly allowance, in line with all other airlines, meaning that the plum trips which attract higher one-off payments, no longer exist. In other words, to make the system fairer, so that junior crew, who are often at the bottom of the list when it comes to rostering, are able to earn the same amount as the senior dinosaurs who have been there since the days of BOAC. Other airlines, incidentally, have a rostering system which mixes up junior and senior crew, length of service having no bearing on what you may be rostered.
With all that in mind, the crew went on strike as was their legal entitlement to do so. It does not surprise me one iota that BASSA method’s of balloting was unorthodox and thus BA were able to halt some of the strikes. BASSA always put me in mind of the “everybody out” steward from Carry on at your Convenience, though I found union membership invaluable during my time as crew, my union was at least able to carry out constructive dialogue with the company management and many acceptable compromises were reached. Both sides were understanding of the other’s position and though in terms of pay negotiations things did not always go the way we wished, other vitally important concessions were granted, with reviews being a regular factor in the process. The union were also instrumental in assisting crew with disciplinary procedures and helping crew to understand the complicated business of legal flying hours and obligations. In short, they were a good example of how a union should work, and I am continually horrified when I hear of other airlines who refuse to co-operate with them.
Where BA have put themselves in the wrong here is by withdrawing travel privileges and concessions from those who went on strike. Let’s be clear, although they are not contractual rights, there is certainly an argument that the context in which they are offered and the way they have been withdrawn could be a breach of employment contract guidelines. What bothers me about this, is the attitude of BA towards those participating in a perfectly legitimate strike. Having enjoyed travel perks myself, it needs to be stated that these consist of massively discounted flights. It is always made clear that they are a privilege and not a right, however the conditions under which the privilege may be withdrawn were always explicit, namely abuse of staff travel. Abuse would consist of fraud, such as attempting to get non-family members onto your named concessions (you are given a generous allowance of discounted friends’ tickets) or of inappropriate behaviour whilst using staff travel, such as giving check-in or crew a hard time if you didn’t get upgraded or indeed were bumped off a flight. There is a whole host of terms and conditions attached to staff travel, but not once is strike action mentioned.
This is what worries me. The travel perks are the very reason that many people go into flying in the first place and for BA crew on long-haul they rely on them in order to get into work, flying from a regional airport into LHR or LGW before a trip. You certainly don’t go into flying for the money alone. If crew have gone on strike with what they believe to be a legitimate claim, to withdraw travel perks arbitrarily for exercising a legal right is hugely concerning. It doesn’t matter that this consists of discounted travel, it’s the principle at stake. What next for companies? Is a company pension a contractual right, or simply a perk or privilege? In addition to which, I know the kind of tactics that BASSA and senior BA crew members use. I am not surprised that many felt too intimidated to go to work during the strike and thus went off sick. They are now also facing disciplinary measures, as opposed to compassion. I don’t know what I would have done if I were junior crew and it was known by various CSDs, who can be absolutely vicious in their behaviour, that I had crossed the picket lines. I’ve seen junior crew treated in an appalling fashion by those who were old enough to know better. Some of the bullying that goes on in the industry is a disgrace. I can well understand that younger members of crew were stuck between a rock and a hard place here, on the one hand not wishing to risk their careers with the company, on the other, not wanting to risk having a negative job performance review by one of the old dinosaurs. BA should at the very least, lift the threat of disciplinary action on those crew who were caught in the middle and it should not be assumed that they were not genuinely ill either. Their pay should be restored.
The threat of removing travel perks may have seemed a masterstroke to Willie Walsh, but it amounted to nothing more than bullying and may well backfire. In the grand scheme of things, some well-paid cabin crew losing their rights to cheap travel may seem small beer which will attract little public sympathy, but I think there’s an important principle at stake here, namely a company’s ability to re-write terms and conditions and arbitrarily remove clearly defined contractual benefits, in order to stamp out any worker dissent.
It’s no surprise that O’Leary is cheering from the sidelines, offering to support BA in whatever way he can. And for those considering re-booking their flights on Ryan Air – remember this is the airline which employs its staff via a holding company in India, in order to get around pension rights and privileges. The airline which compels staff to wear a uniform for which they must pay themselves, compels staff to be trained to a certain level, which they must pay for themselves and who will arbitrarily punish crew who are seen to promote union membership. O’Leary has gone on record as confidently stating that Ryan Air would survive a total hull loss as well as warning against a crackdown on air security measures as they would be more costly.
BA crew may not be doing their company or their long-term job prospects many favours, but they should not be penalised for vocalising their discontent or taking legitimate strike action. “This is a time for co-operation, not confrontation,” I suggest Willie Walsh re-instates travel privileges and removes the threat of disciplinary action, whilst remaining firm about the changes to staffing and allowance levels. To do anything else, given that the original dispute seems to have been settled is punitive, authoritative and confrontational. It’s give and take Willie. The crew have conceded on several issues. Now its your turn to be magmanimous in victory.