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THE BRITISH AIRWAYS STRIKE WATCH III
By Joe Brancatelli
A lengthy dispute between British Airways and its flight attendants boiled over into two strikes in March. Barring a settlement, the union representing BA's flight attendants said it would launch four five-day strikes between May 18 and June 9. The first of the strikes was stopped by an injunction, later overturned, that led the unions to delay the first day of work stoppage until May 24. That strike is scheduled to last until May 28.
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. The British Airways flight tracker is located here. Click here for information from the BA cabin crew involved in the dispute.
05/20/10, 6PM ET - AER LINGUS FIGHTS BA ON NYLON FLIGHTS
British Airways last year launched an all-business-class service between New York/Kennedy and London's City Airport. Although the eastbound flights operate nonstop, London City's runway is too short to allow BA's specially configured Airbus aircraft to carry enough fuel for a transatlantic run. So the planes make a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland. And since Shannon offers U.S. citizens full-service customs and immigration clearance, passengers can clear U.S. re-entry formalities while the planes refuel. BA's twice-daily New York-London City flights will not be affected by the pending flight attendants strike, but Aer Lingus apparently sees an opening on the NyLon run. It is promoting some of its New York/Kennedy-London/Heathrow flights with the same ultra-brief (about 45 minutes) stop at Shannon. It has even posted a special business-class fare of $978 one-way for the flights, although that is for summer travel and tickets must be purchased by June 1. But don't be surprised if Aer Lingus finds a way to make a similar fare available if BA is hit with another strike on Monday. You might want to call Aer Lingus at (800-IRISH AIR) for details and schedules.
05/20/10, 5PM ET - WHY WOULD YOU FLY (OR BOOK) BA NOW?
Having already flown, however shakily and incompletely, through seven days of strikes in March and facing at least 15 more days of strikes beginning Monday, there's an obvious question: Why would anyone trust British Airways' schedules if they have to get to London or elsewhere in the United Kingdom or the world? Since its schedule is in flux, travelers who value their time and their sanity would logically book elsewhere until the strikes are settled and labor peace returns. And I'm not the only one saying that. Britain's left-leaning newspaper, The Guardian, asked the same question in today's editions.
05/20/10, 4PM ET - TWITTER WEIGHS IN ON BA STRIKE
Interesting battle on Twitter after the news that the Unite union successfully overturned the injunction and is free to strike British Airways. Anti-union Tweeters send out stuff similar to this: "Note to British Airways staff and the Unite union. Shut the hell up and be pleased you're employed." Other Tweet types are more realistic about the situation: "More talk of Unite union strike. How can anyone trust the reliability of BA? Never flying with them again." If you are a Tweeter or just follow the increasingly popular social-media site, you can find BA's United States page here and its United Kingdom page here. Unite's Twitter page is here.
05/20/10, 9AM ET - INJUNCTION LIFTED, BA STRIKE IS BACK ON
Britain's High Court has overturned the injunction on a flight attendants strike against British Airways and the union representing says work stoppages will resume on Monday, May 24.
BA secured the emergency injunction on Monday on a narrow legal point about how fully the union, Unite, informed its members of the results of the strike vote. (Union members voted overwhelmingly to strike.) Moreover, the judge that issued the injunction cited "a balance of convenience" as well as a 1992 law to stop the strike, originally scheduled to start on May 18.
The High Court, which signaled its displeasure with the narrowness of the ruling during its hearings, ruled 2-1 to lift the injunction.
Derek Simpson, Unite's joint general secretary, hailed "a sensible decision that reflects the almost irrelevant case that BA has tried to bring. It strikes at the argument that minor technicalities can set aside ballots like this one which were overwhelmingly supported and democratically conducted by our union members."
BA's response was equally transparent: It cited "disappointment" over the ruling, attacked the union and claimed that the union's two previous strikes failed.
Of course, those two strikes in March cost British Airways at least 45 million pounds and untold millions more in lost bookings and inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of passengers. It's hard to fathom what BA would consider a successful strike.
05/19/10 - A DECISION TOMORROW ON STRIKE INJUNCTION
A senior three-judge panel says it won't decide until Thursday morning about lifting the injunction on the flight attendant's strike against British Airways. BA won the injunction on Monday to stop the strike, originally planned to run May 18-22.
BA secured the injunction on a technicality, a narrow legal point about how thoroughly the Unite union informed its members about the results of the strike vote. (The flight attendants have overwhelmingly voted to strike several times in the last year.) British law has very specific rules about how members of a union must vote on any strikes and how they must be informed about the results of the ballot.
During the hearing, the panel seemed sympathetic to the flight attendants and skeptical of the lower court's decision to issue the injunction. The judge that issued the injunction said in his order that the decision was as much about business realities as the law.
One of the three judges, Lady Justice Smith, said "the numbers [of errors] are so small that they can't be of interest to anybody." Another of the judges, who is named Lord Judge, noted the union's two most recent overwhelming votes to strike and doubted any flight attendants weren't fully aware of the results. "Are we really to assume the members of the union weren't absolutely riveted by the prospect of the ballot and the result?"
If the injunction is overturned, the union says it is prepared to strike as quickly as Thursday night. If the injunction is left in place, the union will probably have to arrange another strike vote, a process that could take about a month.
05/17/10 - BA WINS INJUCTION AGAINST STRIKES--FOR NOW
British Airways has won an injunction from the British courts to stop 20 days of strikes scheduled to begin tomorrow and run through June 9. According to London's Guardian newspaper, BA won the injunction on a "technical point, arguing that [the union] failed to carry out its statutory duties by making sure that everyone balloted was told the result."
British Airways also won an injunction against a strike just before Christmas. The strikes eventually took place in March, when fewer people were traveling.
But BA's court victory now raises questions about its strategy. Since the union has overwhelming support for the strikes--the battle is over concessions BA unilaterally imposed on employees--it will almost certainly take a new vote and schedule new strikes. That will only make people less willing to book British Airways throughout the next few months. After all, BA's entire schedule now is at risk as the union plans its next move.
In the meantime, if you expect to fly BA this week--the first tranche of the strike was scheduled for May 18-22--check with the airline. Between rebuilding its schedule and the looming ash cloud and its intermittent airport closures, it will still be a difficult week for BA flyers.
05/15/10 - ASH AND POLS AND IRONY, OH MY!
Philip Hammond, the transportation minister of Britain's new coalition government, says on Monday he'll talk separately to British Airways management and Unite, the union of flight attendants. His goal: "to urge them to get back around the negotiating table and reach a settlement." Wow, one has to be dazzled by the creativity of this new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. After all, the recently banished Labour government, which had close ties with Unite but sided with BA during the previous strikes, never tried "to urge them to get back around the negotiating table and reach a settlement." Meanwhile, the irony of timing intrudes: The first-ever five-day ash forecast from the United Kingdom's Met Office suggests parts of British airspace could be closed starting tomorrow. The worst disruptions in the south of England, where London/Heathrow is located, might not hit until Tuesday, the first day of the next tranche of strikes.
05/14/10 - BA TRIES FOR ANOTHER ROUND OF KICK-THE-CAN
The first tranche of strikes against British Airways was due around the Christmas holiday last year, but BA successfully played kick-the-can on the dates by tying up the flight attendants union in court. BA's legal maneuvers got the strikes moved into March, when there were fewer passengers and lower-yield traffic. The airline is going to try the same legal maneuver again to delay the next series of strikes, due to begin on Tuesday. BA says that it will go into the British courts on Monday morning local time and try for an injunction based on an extremely technical point of labor law. Whether it will succeed is anyone's guess, of course, but it does raise an interesting financial question: What does it benefit BA at this point to get the strike delayed? It only leads skittish travelers to continue to book away from the airline while there is uncertainly about specific dates of the strike. Besides, it's not like BA is hoping for a few extra days to negotiate since the two sides are not talking. And since the flight attendants have voted overwhelmingly to strike each time they have been asked, it doesn't seem like BA wins any union converts with the delaying action.
05/14/10 - HERE'S A NEW-AGE STRIKE-NEWS 'SOURCE'
I don't know who's behind it, but a blog called BAStrike.com popped up late last year. It seems to regurgitate press reports, mostly from the U.K. media, on British Airways and strike-related news. It doesn't identify itself or its allegiance. I don't detect any particular bias either way. Whoever is behind the blog has also launched a Twitter feed.
05/13/10 - WHAT ARE YOUR CHANCES IF YOU'RE BOOKED ON BA?
British Airways said today it is prepared to fly 70 percent of its travelers during the first strike period, which is currently scheduled to last between May 18 and May 22. But that should not be comforting to U.S. and Canadian flyers booked on BA during the period.
For starters, as you can see by the BA statement posted on its Web site, the airline's Gatwick and London/City service isn't affected by the strike. Unfortunately, almost no North American flights operate to or from Gatwick or London/City. And most of BA's intra-Europe passengers are actually being handled on code-share flights. Others will be served by charter carriers that British Airways is bringing in to replace traditional BA flights.
If you're looking to get across the Atlantic on British Airways, what can you expect to operate? BA's two daily flights between New York/Kennedy and London/City are unaffected by the strike. So are the flights to Paris/Orly from Newark and Washington/Dulles operated by BA's OpenSkies subsidiary.
After that, it's hit or miss. BA claims it will operate about 60 percent of its Heathrow flights. In the past strikes, BA was able to get most or all of its Boeing 777s in the air. That's because those planes are cheaper to operate and require fewer flight attendants. It also means destinations such as Boston, Chicago/O'Hare and Newark will have their flights. Service to/from JFK is crucial for the airline, so many of those flights may operate. On the flip side, if you're looking to fly from the West Coast, well, they require BA's larger Boeing 747 aircraft. Virtually all of the flights from Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco were dumped in the earlier strikes.
Bottom line: If you're headed to somewhere other than London, book another carrier between now and mid-June. If you need to get to London, use BA only as a last option.
05/10/10 - FLIGHT ATTENDANTS PLAN 20 DAYS OF STRIKES
The union of British Airways flight attendants has announced 20 days of strikes beginning on Tuesday, May 18. The strikes will take the form of four five-day strikes, each broken by 24 hours of work. That would drive the strike period through June 9. BA's says that it will run the same amount of flights it operated during the strikes earlier this year. But there's reason to question the claim. For starters, the flight attendants roundly rejected a BA offer on concessions that the airline put forward after the last round of strikes. And the five-day periods of strikes with just 24 hours in between will allow BA little time to get crews and planes back in position. For all intents and purposes from a business traveler's point of view, this looks like a continuous strike from May 18 to June 10. Moreover, with BA still reaccommodating travelers displaced by the first strikes and last month's volcanic-ash disruption, it is going to be interesting to see if there are any seats available on whatever flights BA can operate across the Atlantic. Needless to say, you'll need to plan accordingly.
05/07/10 - FLIGHT ATTENDANTS VOTE DOWN BA'S OFFER
After a series of failed negotiations, Unite, the flight attendants union, agreed to put British Airways' final offer to the airline's rank and file. And now the results are in. Surprise! More than 80 percent of the flight attendants said no to the concessionary package offered by BA. More than 70 percent of the flight attendants who were eligible cast a ballot. This virtually guarantees new strike dates will be set.
04/01/10 - AND IN THE END (SORTA)
The second of the scheduled strikes by flight attendants against British Airways ended on Tuesday, March 30. But there's no agreement between the flight attendants and management on the airline's unilaterally imposed changes in work rules, salaries and staffing. Under British labor laws, the union has until April 8 to announce further strike dates and must give seven days notice of any labor action. The union has previously said it would resume the strikes after Easter.
03/31/10 - THE BA STRIKES: WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE
The battle between British Airways and its unhappy flight attendants goes back more than a year. It began heating up with a near-strike during the Christmas season of 2009. All of those details and the blow-by-blow of the first strike in March can be found here. The next strike and its surrounding events was covered here.
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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.