Passengers booked on summer flights on British Airways face uncertainty because of a strike threat by pilots at BA.
All but around 500 of the airline’s 4,500 pilots belong to Balpa. Nine out of 10 union members voted, with 93 per cent in favour of strikes.
Of the entire pilot workforce, three-quarters opted for strike action. This is how the next few days and weeks could play out.
What is the dispute about?
Pay. British Airways says it is offering an increase in salaries well above the rate of inflation: an 11.5 per cent rise over three years. BA says: “We are pleased that the Unite and GMB trade unions, which represent nearly 90 per cent of all British Airways colleagues, have agreed to recommend this fair offer.”
The airline also points to the number of job applications from pilots from other carriers, which it says are running at 1,000 per year, as an indication of how well its pilots are treated.
But Brian Strutton, general secretary of Balpa, told The Independent: “It’s not as good as 11.5 per cent – British Airways are actually taking other money away from us. And the point being: 93 per cent of their pilots have said: ‘I want to go on strike’. So it can’t be that good a deal, can it?”
The current dispute covers pilots working at Heathrow and Gatwick. It does not involve the CityFlyer operation based at London City.
What happened in court?
Immediately after the overwhelming vote in favour of a strike, BA, as is now traditional in industrial disputes, sought a High Court injunction against Balpa on the grounds of legal technicalities involving the ballot.
The judge rejected British Airways’ application. The airline's subsequent appeal was also thrown out.
When could a strike begin, and what is its likely effect?
The union is required to give two weeks’ notice of any strike. The Independent understands it will not call a strike while talks are continuing. The earliest feasible date is Saturday 17 August, but Balpa stresses it is seeking a negotiated settlement and does not want to take industrial action.
If a strike does go ahead, the amount of disruption depends how many BA pilots actually stop work. They have not taken industrial action for four decades, so it is impossible to predict behaviour.
A feature of strikes at British Airways over the past decade – mainly involving cabin crew – is that a significant proportion of union members continue to work on stoppage days.
What routes might be at risk?
The airline is working on its contingency plans, but in order to get as many passengers to their destinations as possible there are some obvious candidates for cancellation – starting with the Singapore-Sydney section of BA’s only Australian route. It consumes a lot of pilot time and alternative carriers are readily available.
Links on which there are frequent flights on British Airways’ partner airlines are also likely to see deep cuts: US points served by American Airlines, Heathrow to Barcelona and Madrid and Heathrow-Doha – where BA’s part-owner, Qatar Airways, has many daily flights.
On very high-frequency links such as Heathrow-Geneva, services could be combined with larger aircraft used on fewer flights.
The airline will endeavour to maintain a near-normal service on some routes that have a combination of high loads and high fares, particular on key long-haul links from Heathrow and Mediterranean links from Gatwick, using non-striking pilots and third-party airlines chartered in to cover.
Routes such as Heathrow-Miami could be particularly prioritised because of the large number of passengers using the link in connection with cruises.
But many of the 700 or so British Airways flights each day could be grounded, affecting tens of thousands of passengers on strike days – and some on “adjacent” days. BA will not roster pilots to, say, Los Angeles if they would be striking on the day they are due to fly back.
When would cancellations be announced, and if my flight is grounded what will I be offered?
If a strike is called, it is feasible that any passengers booked to travel during the spell of industrial action will be offered the option to cancel with a full refund, or change their travel dates away from the strike spell.
This would reduce the scale of the problem for BA. When the airline has finalised its plans, passengers whose flights are cancelled are likely to be told a few days ahead.
British Airways is obliged, under European air passengers’ rights rules, to get travellers to their destinations as swiftly as possible, buying tickets on other airlines – from easyJet to Emirates – if that is necessary.
The big problem is: many flights are fully booked in late August, a peak month for travel.
The airline also has an unlimited duty of care, providing meals and accommodation until the passenger can be transported to their destination. But it will deflect claims for “consequential losses,” such as hotel or rental car expenses that cannot be used.
There is also the possibility of added “on-the-day” disruption – partly because air-traffic congestion in Europe is likely to delay many flights once again in August.
Will I get compensation?
Last year the Civil Aviation Authority was insistent that Ryanair should pay compensation of €250 or €400 per passenger, depending on the destination, and presumably it will urge any travellers affected by a British Airways strike to do the same; long-haul passengers would be entitled to €600 if their flights are cancelled with less than 14 days’ notice or delayed for over three hours.
Coby Benson, flight delay compensation solicitor at Bott and Co, said: “The pay disputes are well within the airline’s control and the management of disgruntled staff is simply part and parcel of running any business and would not be considered an extraordinary circumstance."
I can’t afford to wait to find out if my flight is cancelled. Should I book an alternative now?
No. At present the airline is insisting normal terms and conditions apply for anyone who wants to change or cancel their flight.
Were a strike to be called, it is likely that BA would allow some flexibility to passengers – for example offering full refunds, enabling travellers to seek alternative flights. But already fares on alternative airlines are increasing rapidly, as travellers making fresh arrangements book away from British Airways because of the strike threat.
The dispute is already having an impact on bookings, which is a consequence of the strike ballot being called.
Surely an August strike would cause untold damage to British Airways’ revenue and profits?
Balpa says: “The cost to BA to settle dispute in full is significantly less than the cost would be of even a single day’s strike action.”
On average, British Airways earns £35m in revenue per day. For each day of a pilots’ strike, the cost could run into tens of millions of pounds – involving lost revenue, additional care costs and buying tickets on other airlines.
From BA’s perspective, August is not necessarily the most damaging month for a strike to take place. Business travel, which bankrolls the British Airways operation, is at a minimum.
I sense that British Airways is prepared to take a strike rather than, as BA would see it, cave in. In the cabin crew dispute a decade ago, and more recently with the Mixed Fleet strikes, the airline has taken a relatively hard line. To offer pilots significantly more than Unite and GMB members have already settled for would cause significant industrial relations problems.
Would you buy a ticket on BA from 17 August onwards – and, if so, would you expect to reach your destination?
Yes, and yes. But not necessarily on time.