Airline’s dispute with its pilots threatens to become bitter, says Ian Taylor

British Airways is grounded this morning. The airline’s pilots have seen to that and BA made scant attempt to talk up the possibility of flights operating as carriers often do ahead of strikes.

A BA spokeswoman was clear: “The vast majority of flights won’t operate. Our message to customers is ‘If you don’t have a confirmed seat, don’t come to the airport.”

To all intents and purposes the carrier has cancelled all 850 flights scheduled to operate on Monday and 850 on Tuesday. These would have carried 280,000 passengers.

Podcast: BA strikes

That is a lot of people to rebook on other dates or other airlines or to refund.

Worse for BA it is not the first bout of disruption recently but just the latest. So removing the threat of future strikes would seem a priority.

Yet BA and its pilots appear set on a different course entirely. The dispute seems to have become embittered before it even began.

The most-serious industrial dispute in BA’s history is a strange way to celebrate the airline’s one-hundredth anniversary.

Little spirit of conciliation

Pilots began what is scheduled to be a two-day strike with the union threatening to ground aircraft for an extended period.

A third strike date is set for September 27. But the fear must be that this dispute could extend through the autumn.

The ballot by pilots in July allows their union Balpa to call action up to January. Only a settlement will prevent that.

The union has indicated it has strike funds already in place to finance two weeks of action and plans to raise more.

BA pilots are among the best organised in the industry. They have never been on strike before but voted overwhelmingly to do so now.

We can take it the pilots believe they have cause. BA clearly believes they do not. It has been caustic in reference to the union both in public and in private. There has been little spirit of conciliation in the air.

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Balpa general secretary Brian Strutton said: “We hope to see BA at the negotiating table. If it doesn’t happen, we’ll have to consider next steps. Further strikes are not ruled out.”

He suggested BA had “shut down” all dialogue with the union. BA denied that, insisting it is open to talks at arbitration service Acas “at any time”.

But the airline appeared dismissive of a Balpa offer to call off the strikes last week, implying this had come with conditions the carrier could not accept.

It is normal in a dispute between a company and its workforce that relations become sour leading up to a strike.

It is also normal for both sides to talk resolutely about not backing down and make plans for future action (by the strikers) or operations (by the business).

At the same time, those taking strike action seldom intend to do so for long. Their work is their livelihood. They are not acting for bonuses or share options. They have bills and obligations. They need their pay.

When a dispute becomes lengthy it is typically because a company decline to makes concessions and seeks instead to change the balance of relations with its workforce.

This raises the stakes for the strikers and can make for a lengthy dispute if they refuse to back down.

The stakes for BA and Balpa seem already to have moved beyond the 11.5%, three-year pay deal BA has offered.

There were reports at the weekend that BA was poised to strip the striking pilots of their travel perks.

Quite right, frustrated BA passengers might think. But it’s not a smart move to add insult to injury if you want to settle a falling out.

Shot in the foot

BA is keen to point out that it has been talking with the pilots about pay since last November and that it moved from offering a one-year to a three-year deal at the request of Balpa and fellow unions Unite and the GMB.

The airline also points out that the resulting three-year deal was accepted by members of the GMB and Unite – comprising the bulk of the pilots’ BA colleagues.

BA argues it was justified in taking Balpa to court twice following the union’s strike ballot, suggesting the union had given the carrier insufficient information on its strike plans.

But the courts thought otherwise and it looked unnecessarily confrontational, likely to make matters more difficult not less.

BA suggests it was then surprised by Balpa’s ‘sudden’ notification of the strike dates. In fact, the union avoided taking action at the most-damaging time, August bank holiday.

It was fairly obvious from early August that the union would name strike days in early September, avoiding the height of the leisure season but when schedules were still busy and corporate traffic would be heavy.

This should have been discernible to BA.

The carrier shot itself in the foot with its initial response to the strike dates, misinforming many passengers, sowing chaos and confusion over the bank holiday anyway.

Mistakes happen and BA recovered its poise – something it does well. The airline now says most passengers have been successfully rebooked

Yet having made an error in its initial notice to passengers and drawing heavy criticism, it made what may turn out to be another mistake.

On Wednesday of last week Balpa made a written offer to suspend the strikes on September 8-9. BA rejected this, dismissing the offer as “cynical” and “not in good faith”.

It did so on the grounds that its plans for the strike days were in place – the vast majority of passengers were rebooked and crew rosters redrawn – and Balpa would be well aware of this.

That may be, but ‘We’ve started so we’ll finish’ is never a good way to assess a changing situation.

The dispute is ostensibly about money. BA is keen to remind us that pilots can earn £167,000 a year. It suggests that what Balpa is demanding will cost £50 million on top of the three-year pay deal on offer, and points out unions representing the rest of its workforce will expect the same – a good point.

But I was struck by what an unnamed BA pilot told the business newspaper the Financial Times at the weekend.

The pilots “are resigned to losing their bonus”, the pilot said: “It has become about principles. If we can’t get BA to share when they are making this much money, what hope do we have for the future.”

I fear BA is in for a difficult autumn.

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