Friday, May 14, 2010

Bumpy Ride Ahead for Beseiged British Air

Like Gordon Brown after Tony Blair and Tony Blair after he buddied-up with George W. Bush, British Airways can't seem to win for losing. Bounced about by skyrocketing fuel prices, weighed down by security costs and fears, grounded by an enormous, drifting volcanic ash cloud that brings a near-supernatural quality to flying, BA not only faces the travails other airlines do, but also has a tsunami of industrial action - i.e., strikes - to look forward to this spring.

"Bloody hell,'' as the Brits are wont to say.

Unite, a union that represents BA cabin crew, has already led two short but costly walkouts this year over the money-losing airline's attempts to reduce its operating costs and rewrite work rules. Now, it plans to launch four more walkouts: from Tuesday, May 18 to Saturday, May 22; again from May 24-28; and again from May 30 to June 3; and yet again from June 5-9.

Between erupting volcanos and volcanic union leaders, BA executives say the carrier is on-track to lose 1 billion pounds sterling (nearly $1.5 billion USD) in 2010. That would come on top of losing 401 pounds (nearly $600 million USD) last year.

BA says it will fly - albeit at reduced capacity - through the forthcoming walkouts, as it did through the earlier ones. Even so, the labor actions can't help but disrupt and perhaps ruin travel plans for many BA customers who hope to enjoy their Whit Sunday holiday or jet to the World Cup tournament in South Africa. BA says it will operate all flights out of London's Gatwick and City airports. The carrier also claims it will fly about 60 percent of international flights at London Heathrow airport and 50 percent of domestic flights there, using cabin crew who want to work and leasing aircraft from other airlines.

"We are confident that many crew will ignore Unite's pointless strike call and support the efforts of the airline to keep our customers flying,'' BA's CEO, Willie Walsh, said in a statement. Ironically, Walsh, who has taken a tough stand with labor, was the chief pilots' union negotiator early in his career at Aer Lingus, the Ireland carrier.

Stakeholders - workers, executives, investors and travelers - can argue over the particulars of BA's downsizing plans - and the devil, as they say, is always in the details. But it is hard to quibble with the broad strokes or the need. I can say as a frequent BA flier and aviation industry reporter that this historic, high-quality airline could well be in a fight for its survival. It needs to reduce costs, or no airline.

I sympathize with cabin crew members. I was on staff at a daily newspaper - newspapering being perhaps the only industry that is losing altitude more quickly than commercial civil aviation - and I saw my workplace downsized, employee benefits cut and my pension slashed by one-third. I have felt the pain of restructuring, and it really hurts. That said, BA needs to cut costs in this very turbulent environment. Taking down the company won't help anyone.

As a sympathetic but skeptical observer, it looks to me that Unite has embraced kamikaze logic. If it can't get what it wants, it will attack, attack, attack, and damage whatever it can.

I have seen this before, too. I watched over the past decade as employees - led most visibly by cabin crew - at United Airlines turned the once-friendly skies downright frosty when management cut staffing, salaries and benefits during United's long bankruptcy restructuring, and senior management, led by CEO Glenn Tilton and his most golden of parachutes, made millions. That hurt United workers and retirees. Unfortunately, United cabin crew took it out on the easiest targets, United's customers, without which there would be no airline and workers would have no jobs, no benefits, no snazzy uniforms. One has to hope that the planned merger of United and Continental Airlines - which will, if regulators agree, create the world's largest airline - will go forward with Continental's kinder, gentler corporate culture in the lead.

As for beseiged British Airways, may the gods of the sky save BA from destructive unions. And for Unite, may it straighten up and fly right with new, less self-destructive leadership.

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