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THE BRITISH AIRWAYS STRIKE WATCH
By Joe Brancatelli
A year-long dispute between British Airways and its flight attendants threatens to boil over into a strike this weekend, March 20-22. A further strike is also scheduled for March 27-30.
I've posted the latest details below. Like a Pinter play or a bad blog, you have to read backward for the full story since the newer posts are at the top. I'll update this page as necessary.
If you're looking for what flights British Airways claims it will be able to operate during a strike and what accommodations it will make for ticketed passengers looking for alternatives, surf here. Click here for information from the BA cabin crew involved in the dispute.
3/22/10, 10 A.M. - AFTER THE STRIKE? THE HANGOVER...
So when the British Airways strike ends tomorrow--or, more accurately, goes into midweek recess--will things return to normal? Not likely. Today's BA schedule shows half of the flights from London's Heathrow Airport to New York/Kennedy are cancelled. That's BA's largest North American market. Its second most important route, Heathrow-Los Angeles, shows two cancellations out of three flights today. That means there will be plenty of flights cancelled tomorrow because BA won't have planes in position to operate all of its flights from New York and Los Angeles. And by the time BA gets it act back together, the next tranche of the flight attendants strike is scheduled to begin.
3/21/10, 6 P.M. - BRITISH AIRWAYS' EMPTY-PLANE SYNDROME
The quirk of trying to fly through a strike is that you need planes and crews on both ends of your hubs and global spokes to make it work. And that is leading British Airways to fly many empty planes from its London/Heathrow hub to many of its spokes around the world. The goal? Get passengers waiting for flights at those spokes to London/Heathrow. So the sheer number of flights that BA is operating isn't as impressive as you think. As the Financial Times reports here, British Airways has quite an empty-plane syndrome.
3/21/10, 9 A.M. - TODAY'S BA OUTLOOK: MIXED. TOMORROW?
Here's today's update on the British Airways strike, which is now in its second day. Bottom line: It's going to be tougher for BA flights from North America and cancellations seem to be piling up in London/Heathrow. That means Monday, the first work day of the strike, may be worse.
To my knowledge, all scheduled flights from North America to London departed yesterday. That's because the aircraft were already in place before the strike and flight attendants apparently weren't "officially" on strike until they reached London. Today, however, not so much.
According to the flight tracker on the BA Web site, 2 of 6 departures from New York/Kennedy are cancelled today. Both Houston departures are cancelled and Calgary's only departure is wiped out. In other markets--Philadelphia, Washington/Dulles, Miami--at least one of the airline's two or three daily departures has been cancelled. In at least five markets--Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver, Seattle, Phoenix, Vancouver--the flights are still scheduled, but due to be operated with reduced in-flight service. In several markets--Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Newark--all scheduled flights are shown as operating.
Meanwhile, at Heathrow, it looks as if British Airways is only operating about half of its flights today. Between 1 and 4 p.m. London time, for example, 36 scheduled flights have been cancelled and 37 are still due to operate. Again, this is based on information returned by BA's own flight tracker.
(A note of caution here: BA juggled its schedule all day yesterday, canceling flights that were showing as operating and, oddly, restoring flights that had previously been cancelled. So this is a snapshot at this hour, not immutable fact.)
Tomorrow? It looks like it'll be a tougher day for U.S. departures because there are substantial cancellations from Heathrow today. (That means there's unlikely to be aircraft available tomorrow in North America.) From Heathrow today, BA has cancelled 3 of 6 flights headed to JFK; all three flights headed to Los Angeles; both flights to Miami; the flights to Phoenix and Calgary; and half of the flights to San Francisco, Toronto and Philadelphia.
3/20/10, 9 P.M. - STRIKES AND SPIN AND FLYERS, OH MY!
Strikes these days are as much about media spin as the facts. So, naturally, British Airways is claiming victory. Victory apparently being the ability to operate an eviscerated schedule and possibly "uncancel" a few flights they had previously cancelled. The Unite union also claims victory. Victory apparently being the ability to ground dozens of BA aircraft and hold most (if not all) of its members on the strike line. The Times of London covers the claims of both sides.
The passengers? Well, the BBC is allowing happy flyers--and those who have been grounded--to tell their stories. And it proves what I've always said: Business travel is essentially a selfish pursuit. If you got to where you were going with a minimum of hassle, things are working just fine. If not, the travel world is coming to an end.
3/20/10, 9 A.M. - HOW'S BA DOING? WELL ...
How's British Airways right now as the flight attendant's strike takes hold? BA had been promising to fly 60-65 percent of its passengers today. That would include London/Gatwick and London/City departures, which are largely unaffected by the strike.
At Heathrow, however, where the strike is centered, it doesn't look like things are as good as BA promised. Here's what BA's flight-status function says about departures in the next few hours. (Remember, this is London time, which is four hours ahead of U.S. Eastern time.)
+ Between 2 and 3 p.m., 10 of 22 flights from Heathrow cancelled
+ Between 3 and 4 p.m., 12 of 24 flights from Heathrow cancelled
+ Between 4 and 5 p.m., 8 of 22 flights from Heathrow cancelled
+ Between 5 and 6 p.m., 12 of 21 flights from Heathrow cancelled
+ Between 6 and 7 p.m., 11 of 17 flights from Heathrow cancelled
+ Between 7 and 8 p.m., 13 of 18 flights from Heathrow cancelled
+ Between 8 and 9 p.m., 6 of 8 flights from Heathrow cancelled
Most of BA's intra-Europe schedule has been wiped out and many long-haul flights (include Johannesburg, Hong Kong and North American destinations) are canceling as well. Of course, it's hard to get a fix on how many passengers are actually affected.
3/20/10, 7 A.M. - STRIKE ON, CANCELLATIONS BEGIN
The strike is on and British Airways flight attendants represented by the Unite union have walked off the job for a three-day strike. The earliest indications I have are that BA will not be able to run as many flights as it promised.
Although many of the flights from the United States and Canada are likely to go today (planes are in position and crews apparently aren't officially on strike until they reach London), BA's flights from London/Heathrow to North America today are already being heavily impacted. And that means there will be precious little service to London later today or Sunday and Monday.
According to the flight-status function on BA's Web site, here's some of what I've found after a quick look:
+ 3 of 5 flights from Heathrow to New York/Kennedy today are cancelled
+ 1 of 3 flights from Heathrow to Washington/Dulles today is cancelled
+ 2 of 2 flights from Heathrow to Miami today are cancelled
+ 1 of 2 flights from Heathrow to Philadelphia today is cancelled
+ 3 of 3 flights from Heathrow to Los Angeles today are cancelled
+ 2 of 2 flights from Heathrow to San Francisco today are cancelled
+ 1 of 1 flights from Heathrow to Phoenix today is cancelled
+ 1 of 2 flights from Heathrow to Toronto today is cancelled
+ 2 of 2 flights from Heathrow to Houston today are cancelled
+ 1 of 1 flights from Heathrow to Montreal today is cancelled
+ 1 of 1 flights from Heathrow to Calgary today is cancelled
Flights to several other cities I checked (Heathrow to Boston, Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth and Newark) are still scheduled, but due to be run with reduced in-flight service and/or with chartered aircraft and non-BA crew.
3/19/10 - BA, UNION TALKS COLLAPSE. STRIKE LIKELY.
Talks between British Airways and its main cabin-crew union, Unite, have collapsed. A strike appears likely now and the first tranche of the job action by flight attendants is scheduled for March 20, 21 and 22. Despite the claim that it is "prepared" for any job action, BA today began canceling flights for next week. That's outside the strike parameters, but BA must finally understand that it won't have planes and crews in position to fly its normal schedule on non-strike days. Click the BA information link above for more details on its latest cancellations for March 23-26.
If you want a sense of the acrimony surrounding the potential strike--and confirmation this is now about who has the upper hand rather than financial realities, read this dead-on Reuters dispatch from 1:25 p.m. Eastern Time.
3/18/10 - BRITISH AIRWAYS AND ITS UNION ARE TALKING AGAIN
British Airways, which unilaterally imposed work-rules changes and other concessions on its flight attendants, is once again talking with Unite, its employees' union, which is threatening the first of a series of strikes on Saturday, March 20.
British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh and Unite joint general secretary Tony Woodley resumed talking early this morning London time.
Despite Walsh's contention that BA wanted all of the estimated 65 million pounds of givebacks, he is apparently wavering. Unite picked up support from other unions around the world and that threatens to undermine BA's efforts to run even a fraction of its flights through this weekend's potential strike. Estimates are that BA risks upwards of 120 million pounds if the strikes this weekend and next weekend take place.
For his part, Woodley is being pressed to settle by top leaders of Britain's ruling Labour Party. They fear a strike would further damage their chances to win a general Parliamentary election expected in early May.
British Airways' latest flight schedule plans and other strike-related details are posted here. Be aware, however, that airlines rarely run smoothly (or at all) when they try to fly through strikes. So take BA's schedule plans as just that: plans. Nothing's predictable if the airline's flight attendants walk off the job on Saturday.
3/16/10 - BRITAIN'S LABOUR PRIME MINISTER BASHES BA'S UNION
Embattled British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has blasted British Airways' flight attendants and called their planned strikes "deplorable."
Sound like boilerplate from a politician without any influence in the dispute? Maybe, but the backstory is fascinating. Brown is a Labour Party politician and even in these days of business-friendly "New Labour," it's a shock to hear a Labour politician jump ugly with a union. Moreover, the BA flight attendant's union, Unite, is the largest contributor to the Labour Party.
Smell a rat? You should. Brown must call an election by early May and his party has trailed badly throughout his time in Number 10 Downing Street. But Brown has been gaining in the polls lately and what's more popular than bashing a strike that is unpopular with the populace at large?
You can read more about it in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal or a blog post for the paper's European edition.
3/15/10 - TALKS FAIL AND BA UNION SETS STRIKE DATES
Talks between British Airways and the union representing its flight attendants have broken off. As a result, the union has posted two sets of strike dates:
+ Saturday, March 20, through Monday, March 22.
+ Saturday, March 27, through Tuesday, March 30.
+ The union says strikes will resume after April 14 if the dispute is not resolved.
British Airways says it is making alternate plans. It is training other staff members as replacement flight attendants and is "wet leasing" aircraft and crews from other carriers to operate as BA flights.
Let me stress a few things now:
+ The airline and the union aren't that far apart on the concessions that BA has imposed and the union is resisting. Logic would dictate that some agreement should be reachable if egos are kept out of it.
+ One analysis published by Reuters says strikes could cost British Airways upwards of 120 million pounds. BA's supposed savings with the givebacks: 65 million pounds. You do the math.
+ Although flight-attendant strikes aren't as difficult to overcome as a pilot's strike, consider any alternate or interim schedule that BA posts with extreme skepticism. And with planes and crews out of position if the first strike days happen, flight operations will be sketchy during the non-strike days of March 23-26, too.
2/22/10 - NO SURPRISE: BA CABIN CREW AGAIN VOTES TO STRIKE
To the surprise of absolutely no one, British Airways' flight attendants have once again voted to strike. This time the vote was 81 percent "yes" despite weeks of threats and bellicose talk from British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh. But the union did not announce any strike dates, a requirement under British and European law. A labor stoppage can happen anytime in the next 28 days. For more details, check with the Guardian, a major London broadsheet daily.
1/21/10 - BA'S CABIN CREW WILL TAKE A NEW STRIKE VOTE
British Airways flyers take note: The union that represents the airline's cabin crew has scheduled another strike vote for next week. That means BA could be whacked by a strike as early as March. British Airways averted a work stoppage over this past holiday season only by convincing a judge to invalidate an earlier strike vote, which had been approved by about 90 percent of the airline's flight attendants.
12/17/09 - BA PLAYS KICK THE CAN WITH A STRIKE
More than 90 percent of British Airways' flight attendants voted to strike for 12 days over the holidays, but BA dodged a bullet today (December 17) when a London court decided the union's ballot may have counted a few votes from staffers who recently left the airline, been laid off or already accepted a buyout. As a result, the strike is off--at least for now. The union will have to conduct another vote, which means the earliest a strike can be held is late January. And a confrontation seems inevitable because BA chief executive Willie Walsh has been particularly confrontational in defense of the airline's recent unilateral decision to change work rules and reduce in-flight staffing levels. Besides, there's little doubt that the union is incensed and eager to strike. It polled about 12,000 members and even BA only claimed "hundreds of staff" have been incorrectly included. Negotiations--if you can call them that--have been sporadic.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.