BA branded 'brutish' as tempers fray

It's beginning to sound like the stuff of comic books: "Brutish Airways" battles the "malevolent force".

BA planes at Heathrow Airport BA's planes are still airborne after a legal challenge to the latest strikes

As BA manages to secure a second injunction to prevent a strike by its cabin crew, both the Unite union and the airline's supporters are ratcheting their rhetoric all the way up to 11.

The play on British Airways' name comes from a website bearing the Unite logo and urging passengers to e-mail the airline's chairman in support of the striking employees.

"This dispute isn't about getting a pay rise - it's about standing up to bullying and being treated with respect," it says.

At the same time, at least one key shareholder in BA is urging the airline to hold firm and refuse to give ground in the dispute.

David Cumming, head of UK equities at Standard Life Investments, which owns about 7% of BA's shares, told the BBC's Today programme on Monday that the union was "clearly a malevolent force".

For his part, BA chief executive Willie Walsh has steered clear of such emotive language. But he has made his own appeal to the public by appearing in a series of YouTube videos in an effort to maintain consumer support.

Stumbling blocks

The odd thing about the latest stage of the long-running dispute is that the main points at issue now appear to have been resolved.

The union's grievance goes back to November last year, when BA reduced the number of cabin crew on long-haul flights from 15 to 14 and introduced a two-year pay freeze from 2010.

Screen grab of 'Brutish Airways' website The Unite union has taken its fight into cyberspace

It also proposed new contracts for fresh recruits and newly promoted staff. These included a single on-board management grade, no seniority, promotion on merit, and pay set at market rate plus 10%.

The union now says it has reached an agreement in principle with the airline on the changes - but in the meantime, the dispute has generated its own sources of conflict.

When cabin crew last went on strike in March, the airline said that staff who took part in the strike would lose their travel perks permanently, including no longer being allowed to buy heavily discounted tickets.

The union wants these perks restored. It also opposes disciplinary action being taken against more than 50 union members.

Bitter battle

By now, many BA passengers may be wondering why industrial action is still being pursued with such vigour.

As aviation analyst John Strickland says of Unite's remaining motivation for striking, "it is, to the public, very much a peripheral issue".

Striking cabin crew (file photo) BA Heathrow services were badly hit by a seven-day strike in March

At first glance, the increasing bitterness being shown seems to bear out Henry Kissinger's old observation about university politics - that they are "vicious, precisely because the stakes are so small".

But from another point of view, the stakes could not be higher. For BA's Willie Walsh and Unite's Tony Woodley alike, it is now a question of pride - and neither side can easily back down.

Mr Walsh has insisted that travel perks will not be reinstated for striking cabin crew. "We have never, never negotiated on these perks and we never will," he said in March.

For its part, Unite has called the ending of travel concessions "unacceptable anti-union bullying".

Stalemate 'disaster'

Andy Cook, chief executive of industrial relations advisory firm Marshall-James, describes the stand-off at BA as "brinkmanship at its most extreme".

"It seems utterly amazing that a prestigious British company that touches so many people across the world has ended up in this position," he says.

He describes the current state of play as a "disaster", since a breakthrough can only come if one of the parties loses face.

He also warns: "The company realise that they are now addressing a history of past management's reluctance to tackle the union and its power.

"If they give in now, they will be faced with this same situation again in a few years' time."

As BA stands on the brink of an ambitious merger with Iberia, the dispute seems like a damaging distraction from the task of securing the airline's future.

But BA's reputation rests on its ability to provide a superior customer experience to the low-cost budget airlines - and alienating its cabin crew will hardly help to achieve that aim.

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