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. After a one-day hiatus, a second five-day strike is scheduled to begin May 30, followed by another one-day break and then another strike beginning on June 5. Given the realities of airline logistics, however, you can consider the entire period a strike zone. In fact, it'll probably take until mid-June for BA to return to normal. And if there hasn't been a settlement by then, a new series of strikes seems inevitable

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.

The first of three five-day strikes ended Friday (May 28) and the second began on Sunday, May 30. The union and British Airways have been talking on and off. But the big news is this: BA has clearly not broken Unite, the union that represents the airline's flight attendants. If no deal is reached by end of the third five-day strike on June 9, the union says it will ballot its members again to continue the strike during the busy summer months. And given the overwhelming support that previous strike ballots have received, there's no reason to think the flight attendants won't vote to continue the strikes.

As for BA's operating performance, there seems to be a slight shift in strategy. It has restored virtually 100 percent of the flights scheduled to and from its major markets, New York and Los Angeles. But many other cities--Philadelphia, Boston, Washington/Dulles and Toronto to name just a few--continue to have cancellations. And since every day brings a slightly different scenario, BA's schedule remains wholly unreliable. Most of the flights that are operating use replacement crews staffed at minimum legal levels. There are many flight delays, too, especially from London/Heathrow. In other words, even the BA flights that run don't seem like BA. (Unless, of course, you hate British Airways and will claim that it just sounds like BA being BA.)

The cost of the strike so far? The Unite unions says BA has spent 100 million pounds to date to fight the strike. BA will only say the seven days of strikes in March cost 43 million pounds and that it has not yet calculated the cost of these current strikes.

So how--and how much--is British Airways flying through the last days of the first round of the current tranche of flight attendants strike? Short answer: Who knows? Slightly longer answer: It depends on who you're listening to and what you're checking. The reality is below.

For weeks leading up to the current strike (and all during the March strikes), British Airways all but demanded passengers (and potential passengers) rely only on the schedules and departure information posted at the British Airways Web site. Don't listen to the union, which claimed planes were parked all over the place. Don't listen to the critics or the anti-BA rabble. Only British Airways is giving out accurate information.

Uh, well, apparently not. Yesterday (May 26), when I wanted to check how BA was doing on the bellwether New York/Kennedy-London/Heathrow run, I headed to the flight-status tracker on BA.com. It showed that three of the six scheduled departures were cancelled. But I got contradictory information from BA officials, who insisted that the airline ran five of the six flights due to leave New York yesterday. Two flights had been "reinstated" during the day. Reinstatement is current BA lingo for: We cancelled the flight yesterday but today we decided to run it.

The BA.com flight tracker apparently never got the news. Even now, in fact, nearly 24 hours later, it still insists that BA cancelled two of the six flights from JFK to LHR yesterday.

What is the actual truth? Who knows? More to the point, who cares? If BA's Web site--the official point of contact with customers and the one real source of "truth," the company claims--no longer agrees with what BA says is actually happening, there's a bigger question: Why would you fly an airline whose left hand apparently doesn't know what its Web site is doing? And why would you book an airline that offers conflicting information about which flights it operates and which ones it cancelled?

I said it last week and I'll say it again now: Avoid BA until its strike situation is settled. It's simply not worth the risk. There are always other options. And that's the reality.

A strike that is helping no one--BA is burning cash and losing customers and revenue, the union's reputation is suffering and passengers are being inconvenienced--is finally being talked about again. British Airways and its striking flight attendants union had meetings Wednesday and more negotiations are apparently set for Friday, May 28. The current tranche of the work stoppage is due to end Friday evening. Saturday isn't an official strike date, but BA will scramble to try to get back in shape and then another five-day strike is due to begin on Sunday, May 30.

So here's an interesting management question: How long would you last if you impose changes on your employees that can save the company about 60 million pounds annually, but will cost it almost as much in strike-related expenses and 20 times that much in lost revenue? Not long, right? And it makes you wonder how long Willie Walsh gets to stay boss (er, chief executive) at British Airways.

The last BA chief executive who took a strike, Bob Ayling, was escorted from his C-suite not long afterwards. But the path for Walsh might be different--and may have been different since the moment of his hiring. He's designed to be the disposable man at British Airways.

Hired away from Aer Lingus in 2005 as a replacement for Australian Rod Eddington, the man who replaced Ayling, Walsh was an unconventional choice from the first. Although he saved listing Aer Lingus in the days immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Walsh was perceived as a tad too blunt and a touch too inexperienced for such a gigantic job as BA chief executive. And he was Irish. That may sound like a bizarre comment to American ears, but British-Irish antagonism is still a very real factor across the pond. (BA's workforce is oddly tribal and somewhat ethnically segregated among the many cultures that make up modern-day Britain.)

Moreover, Walsh's tenure has been undistinguished. He's been slow to keep BA's uber-profitable premium classes up-to-date. A new first-class cabin, already under development when he arrived, still hasn't been officially unveiled and won't go public until next month. The 2008 opening of BA's "home of the future," Terminal 5 at London/Heathrow, was a disaster that cost the airline tens of millions in lost business, direct costs and publicity. Needless to say, labor relations have been poor, although Walsh did strike a peace with his pilots and their union.

So the obvious question: Is Walsh's job at BA now to take the strike, ram through unpopular cost-cutting measures and then hand over to a new chief executive, who will promptly claim that it's time for a new start for the British aviation icon?

The answer is yes and, in fact, the path for Walsh's exit has already been clearly signaled. When BA and Iberia announced their official merger plan in the spring, Walsh was anointed top man at the pan-European holding company that will control the otherwise independent airlines. And British Airways next chief executive was already announced: Keith Williams, currently BA's chief financial officer.

So consider this strike Willie Walsh's last stand. Regardless of the outcome, he'll be off to move planes around a pan-European route map and his replacement will opine about a new era of labor relations at British Airways.

From the cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face department: A professor at the Manchester Business School says the flight attendants' strike is costing British Airways 1.4 billion pounds in lost revenue as travelers defect to other carriers. "Some people will always fly BA, but many others are fickle and they'll go where they want," Gary Davies, a professor of corporate reputation, said to Bloomberg Business Week. "I don't think the company or trade unions are taking this seriously enough."

Davies and the school surveyed 4,300 BA customers and employees of 56 business. As you'll recall, BA management started this cycle by unilaterally imposing staffing changes, a pay freeze and work-rules changes on its flight attendants. The goal: save 62 million pounds a year. In other words, if the Manchester school's study is correct, BA chief executive Willie Walsh has burned through 22 years of savings by taking the strikes, which are currently due to run through at least June 9. And that doesn't count the millions Walsh spent to recruit new workers to sub for the strikers, the planes and crews he "wet leased" to fly part of BA's schedules and other direct strike-related expenses. (The Bloomberg Business Week story about the Manchester study is here.)

05/24/10, 1PM ET - HOW'S BA DOING TODAY? MEH...
So how's British Airways doing during the first day of this tranche of the flight attendants strike? A little better than the flight attendants would hope, not as good as BA had promised--and certainly not as good as business travelers need.

I focused on today's departures from London/Heathrow, because that'll impact departures from the United States and Canada this evening and tomorrow. What I found was a decidedly mixed bag:

    + To New York/Kennedy: two of six flights cancelled, delays ranging from 16 to 89 minutes on the three flights that have departed.
    + To Los Angeles: one of three flights cancelled, delays of 38 and 41 minutes on the departures.
    + To Toronto: one of two flights cancelled, 37-minute delay on the departure.
    + To Chicago/O'Hare and San Francisco: Each market received its two scheduled flights, the departure delays ran from 15 to 61 minutes.
    + To Boston: two of three flights cancelled, the third departure due later this evening.
    + To Washington/Dulles: two of three flights cancelled; the departure was delayed by 13 minutes.

Markets such as Phoenix and Calgary had their only departures of the day cancelled. Denver's daily flight is currently scheduled to depart 81 minutes later.

By the way, this is based on information provided by BA's flight tracker at approximately 12:30 p.m. ET. The delay information is from the scheduled departure time, not actual arrival time. Many flights made up some or all of the departure delays in the air.

Finally, it doesn't look like BA is getting quite as many flight attendants to cross the picket lines as the airline hoped. Many flights cancelled today had shown as operating when I checked late yesterday Eastern Time.

Needless to say, that should serve as a reminder to check frequently before departing for the airport today or anytime you have a BA flight before June 9, the last scheduled strike day.

05/24/10, 4AM ET - BA IS ON STRIKE (AGAIN)
The latest British Airways flight attendants strike has begun and is due to last until May 28. Then there will be a one-day "breather" and a second set of five-day work stoppages will begin. Then another "normal" day and another five-day strike, ending on June 9.

Since employees don't officially begin striking until they reach London, departures from the United States and Canada to London today may run relatively well. Departures from London/Heathrow to the US and Canada will run less well, however. For example, the first flight of the day from Heathrow to New York/JFK has already been delayed. And while it may be a scheduling guess based on BA's estimates about how many employees it can get to cross the picket lines, the situation does seem to worsen as the week progresses. Today, for, example, all but one flight scheduled from Heathrow to New York and Newark are scheduled to operate. By Thursday, however, the BA schedule shows half of the Heathrow departures to New York/Newark cancelled. Ditto for Boston, where only one of three departures from Heathrow is cancelled today, but two of three are cancelled tomorrow.

Needless to say, if you are scheduled to fly British Airways (or a code-shared flight operated by BA), do NOT go to the airport until you know the flight is at least scheduled to operate. And be prepared for disappointment if BA cancels a flight at the last minute.

A reminder: Not affected by the strike are BA's New York/JFK-London/City flights, its few flights from North America to London/Gatwick and OpenSkies' flights between Newark, Washington/Dulles and Paris/Orly.

British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh, who frequently posts You Tube videos touting his version of BA's side of the battle with BA flight attendants, is annoyed that Derek Simpson, one of the leaders of the Unite union, tweeted during yesterday's negotiations.

"I was shocked and angry," Walsh told the BBC. "When I found out that he [Simpson] was actually sending his version of events to the wider audience, you know that really did undermine my confidence in their desire to resolve this issue."

You can view Walsh's videos at the FlyBritishAirways channel at YouTube.com. You can catch up with Simpson's Twitter page here. But don't tell Willie you're doing anything but admiring his smiling face on You Tube. He apparently takes your following both sides of the negotiations personally.

British Airways chief Willie Walsh and Unite union boss Tony Woodley held mediated talks in London on Saturday afternoon. But the meeting broke down when several dozen demonstrators stormed the building where the two men were negotiating. The protestors were from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and they broke into the headquarters of ACAS, the British mediation service. British media call the SWP "Trotskyite." London police were called and both Walsh and Woodley were escorted from the building by uniformed officers. Walsh said he was "disgusted" by the demonstrators and Woodley called them "idiots." Being dead and all, Leon Trotsky couldn't be reached for comment.

British Airways today posted a full-year loss of 531 million pounds (about $800 million), the largest since the airline was privatized in 1987. Although it was slightly less than analysts projected, the loss was even larger than last year's 401 million, which started chief executive Willie Walsh on his cost-cutting, concession-imposing campaign.

The results include 43 million pounds of cost that Walsh ran up taking seven days of a flight attendant's strike in March. Walsh claims the concessions and work-rules changes he imposed will save the carrier about 62 million pounds a year.

Walsh claims the airline could break even next year, but that prediction now seems shaky since BA is headed for at least 15 more days of strikes before mid-June, the prospect of more work stoppages after that and continuing revenue drain as passengers book away from the airline.

It might be worth remembering here what this strike is all about. British Airways unilaterally imposed new work rules and staffing cuts on its flight attendants. By BA's estimate, the changes would save the airline 65 million pounds a year.

Flight attendants didn't like the changes and voted several times to strike. Long negotiations failed to address the issue. Then BA chief executive Willie Walsh threatened to revoke the travel privileges (staffers get free or reduced-price travel) of any flight attendant who struck the carrier. (The travel privileges are not part of the union contract.)

After months of wrangling, flight attendants struck for seven days in March. By BA's own reckoning, the strike cost the airline 45 million pounds in direct expenses and untold millions more in lost bookings. If the remaining 15 days of strike happen, logic dictates that BA would incur additional losses of about 100 million pounds and sacrifice untold millions more in lost revenue.

That would mean two years of BA's imposed savings would be wiped out by the cost of fighting the strike, truly horrific losses of future bookings and the loss of still more passenger goodwill. The issue would also be the subject of still more strikes from unhappy flight attendants.

By the way, it might be worth noting here that BA and the flight attendants appear to be very close to settling on the issue that started the strike. The current sticking points? Walsh's insistence that he will never reinstate the travel privileges of the flight attendants. Since that is a key perk for flight attendants around the world, that is a major issue for the union. It's also apparently a point of management pride for Walsh.

The union also wants the reinstatement of several employees that BA fired for alleged strike-related abuses and bullying. Interesting, among those that BA has fired are key members of the airline's flight attendants union, a tactic labor experts call a "decapitation" strategy.

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. The run-up to the first strike in May was covered here.

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.