The aviation industry is built on contingency planning. But when the announcement came through that the pilots had called off the strike planned for 27 September, British Airways was completely unprepared.
The airline took over two hours to update the “strikes” section of its website, and when it did the results were far from enlightening: “We have just received this news of the strike cancellation, so we are now considering the implications for our schedule and we will give updates in due course.”
Such unreadiness is understandable. Both BA and the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) had looked as though they were digging in for a war of attrition. Ostensibly the dispute is over a few tenths of one per cent on a pay deal that many workers would see as generous: 11.5 per cent over three years.
Yet the pay dispute masks a much deeper divide, between a successful company and an indispensable and well-rewarded group of workers. Pilots feel distrustful of an airline management that (they feel) has lost respect for them. They feel their unflagging professionalism has helped transform the fortunes of British Airways, enriching shareholders and top management, but has not been shared equitably with the men and women at the sharp end.
BA’s bosses, meanwhile, are unwilling to cede an inch. The airline-wide pay deal has already been signed off by the other unions, and to renegotiate would be messy and expensive.
The management also feels, as one insider graphically put it: “After years of being hosed down with cash, the pilots need a reality check.”
As I wrote on the first day of a British Airways pilots’ strike for 40 years: “This has stopped being an arithmetical dispute, and is now emotional. BA and the pilots’ union do not need arbitration so much as counselling. And the longer they put it off, the more the passengers will suffer.”
Balpa’s dramatic olive branch will have enraged many pilots as much as it wrong-footed BA. They feel the almost-total shutdown of the airline during the first 48-hour stoppage showed their industrial might, and believe that the management would ultimately be persuaded to back down by shareholders alarmed at the airline’s rapidly eroding value.
With both sides trading insults rather than entreaties, there seemed no prospect of a settlement before hundreds of thousands more travellers had been inconvenienced and countless millions squandered in the stalemate.
The union’s move shrewdly places the ball in BA’s court. The airline’s first move is likely to resurrect the schedule on and around 27 September, and to deal with thousands of angry passengers who will feel they were forced needlessly to change their travel plans. But then British Airways will need to come to the table, and work with Balpa and the conciliation service, Acas, to produce a smoke-and-mirrors solution from which both sides can claim victory.