It seems like a yearly occurrence now, but as we creep closer to Christmas the threat of strikes from major transport agencies looms ever present. Often tied in to unfair contracts and squeezed out of employment, striking is a legitimate form of protest from disaffected workers, despite the inconvenience caused by it.
Now, more than 2,000 British Airways cabin crew members based at Heathrow airport could go on strike over Christmas after voting overwhelmingly in favour of walkouts, after a continued dispute over pay levels. The crew are part of BA’s mixed fleet, and make up around 15% of the total numbers of stewards at the airline.
The dispute has arisen after the airline’s negotiators offered a 2% pay rise on what was described by Unite as ‘poverty pay’ levels for staff. The BA have in turn accused Unite of creating uncertainty for passengers during the Christmas period. They’ve further said that they intend to resolve the issue without causing disruption, but that hasn’t stopped people calling the British Airways phone to find out if there winter holiday plans are going to be affected.
Average pay, including allowances, for BA cabin crew in the mixed fleet is just £16,000 a year. Basic pay sits at an incredible £12,000 a year, which Unite has said leads to many crew sleeping in their car between flights or taking second jobs in order to survive. British Airways, on the other hand said crew would normally make around £21,000 with bonuses included.
In order to gauge support for the strike, Unite balloted 2,500 staff at Heathrow. In total, 79% of the vote opted to strike on a 60% turnout.
It’s not the first time that BA’s mixed fleet staff have considered a strike either, with 2014 finding discontent around the differential in pay between new recruits and the company’s bosses. Willie Walsh, the chief exec at BA’s parent company IAG earned £6.5m in 2015, for example.
Matt Smith, Unite regional officer, said that the cabin crew at BA were at “breaking point”, adding “Mixed fleet crew earn just over the minimum wage and below the national average. Significant numbers of crew are taking on second jobs, many go to work unfit to fly because they can’t afford to be sick. British Airways bosses need to wake up to the anger and the injustice here.”
Smith contends that the low pay is not only unfair, but it’s also a significant safety issue for aviation, saying “Inexperience, fatigue, and the fact that BA recently cut the length of crew training courses means Unite is genuinely concerned about the potential repercussions.”
BA have said that they’ve made an offer which would increase basic pay and hourly duty by a minimum of 7%, adding “We are extremely disappointed that the union is creating uncertainty for our customers. Mixed fleet Unite represents about 15% of our cabin crew.
“We remain focused on resolving this issue as quickly as possible without any disruption to customers. We have proposed a fair and reasonable pay increase to mixed fleet cabin crew, which is in line with that accepted by other British Airways colleagues and which will ensure their reward levels remain in line with cabin crew at our airline competitors.”
Smith is urging BA to solve the issue as quickly as possible, but it could be some days before we hear any concrete news about wage increases for staff. All of which, of course, has led many customers to ask whether the strike will affect their travel plans.
Well, the most likely answer to that is no, it probably won’t. As above, 2,000 cabin members might sound like a lot, but it’s only 15%. In a worst case scenario, BA might reduce numbers of cabin staff on flights in order to compensate, but it’s not as devastating as, say, a pilot walkout would be to their plans.
Instead, any cabin crew strikes will affect an area of BA which they prize very highly indeed – customer experience. With fewer members of the cabin crew on each flight, the gaps between service for customers and the amount of time each cabin crew member can spend with guests on the flight.
If, like many people, you chose to fly with British Airways for the levels of customer service that you receive on the flight, this might come as something of a disappointment. However, you shouldn’t see too much of a difference in your customer service.
Indeed this could all be moot by the time you fly, because BA do seem keen to resolve the issue. All eyes will be on the flagship British flight company to see whether they can get their cabin crew back in time for the Christmas/New Year flight rush.