In a long-running dispute over alleged ‘poverty pay‘, British Airways cabin crew belonging to it’s ‘Mixed Fleet’ branch are in the middle of their longest walkout to date. The latest strike started on 1st July and is set to last 16 days – but there won’t be much respite for either BA managers or passengers. In the last 24 hours, the Unite union has announced yet another strike.
The next walkout is scheduled to take place just three days after the current walkout ends. Beginning on the 19th July, the strike will pit disgruntled cabin crew against the masses of British holidaymakers at the start of the UK summer holidays. If it goes ahead as planned, the strike will last 14-days, just two days short from the current walkout.
By anyone’s standard, this industrial dispute is big – even if British Airways is insisting it can run 99.5% of its fleet (the airline has said only one in every 200 flights might be affected by the cabin crew strike). In an attempt to break the strike, British Airways has merged some flights and even leased nine aircraft from Qatar Airways.
What is a ‘wet lease’ aircraft?
The process known as ‘wet-leasing‘ means British Airways hires both the aircraft and the crew to go with it. The Qatar Airways aircraft have been used on about 30 European flights per day so far after BA successfully applied to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to use the aircraft.
It makes sense for BA to wet lease the Qatari jets – after all, Qatar Airways owns a 20% stake in IAG, the parent company of British Airways. And as widely reported, Qatar Airways has a surplus of aircraft at the moment. Although it’s not without controversy or objection.
What’s the problem with Qatar Airways?
One objector is the Unite union – they are not happy at all. Unite has launched a legal challenge against the decision, saying the ruling breaches European legislation. “Unite is challenging the government’s decision to approve British Airways use of Qatar Airways aircraft. The ‘wet leasing’ of Qatar Airways’ aircraft should not have been approved by the government or been sought by British Airways,” said Unite national officer Oliver Richardson.
#NSSN supporting @MFUnite protest outside @qatarairways – #BritishAirways using staff 2 try 2 break strike of low-paid staff #BALowPayNoWay pic.twitter.com/JsuD9GixkU
— NSSN (@NSSN_AntiCuts) July 5, 2017
He continued: “We believe it is not only in breach of European regulations and non-compliant with civil aviation safety.”
And if that wasn’t enough, Richardson has said the use of Qatar Airways aircraft and cabin crew has “driven a coach and horses through British Airways’ own corporate social responsibility policy.”
The union claims Qatar Airways is “guilty of systemic workplace sex discrimination.” Members of the union gathered outside the Gulf airline’s UK headquarters in West London yesterday to protest at the wet lease agreement.
What’s the dispute about again?
As a quick reminder, the dispute originally came about over the pay and conditions for ‘Mixed Fleet’ cabin crew who joined British Airways after 2010. The Union labelled the salary as ‘poverty pay’ and claimed crew were only taking home about £16,000 per year. British Airways, however, insisted cabin crew should expect to earn at least £21,000 per year.
We thought the dispute had been resolved when BA offered to increase its pay offer. However, written within the offer was a number of sanctions the airline planned to take against staff who had been on strike. The offer BA put on the table made it clear that anyone who had taken part in previous strikes would have their staff travel perks withdrawn for at least a year. The union called the offer “bullying behaviour” and the deal was quickly rejected.
What has British Airways got to say about the strike?
We reached out the British Airways to see what they had to say about the situation:
“It seems extraordinary that a trade union should ask its members to give up their pay and benefits for virtually the whole of July, trying to target the holidays of hard-working families, rather than give those members a chance to settle the central issue of the dispute,” said a spokesperson for British Airways.
The airline goes on to say that the strike is “completely unnecessary” – they say a pay deal was reached two months ago, although appears to ignore the point that cabin crew and the union are now raising about ‘collective punishment’.
So how can they afford to stay on strike?
The BA spokesperson makes a good point – the Unite union is calling for better pay and conditions for its members but at the same putting the strikers in a position where they earn even less money. Earning just three days pay in an entire month would be hard for anyone.
But here’s the thing – this dispute is now more about principle than it is money. The cabin crew taking action know their career in British Airways will likely never progress. They’ve got to the point at which they have nothing to lose and they want to make their voice heard.
Luckily, the Unite union have their backs. A fighting fund has been set up and striking crew are effectively getting pay from this fund. British Airways are said to be furious that the union is providing financial assistance to its members but there’s very little the airline can do.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.