August wasn’t a terribly good month for British Airways. The airline had to deal with a cabin crew strike that lasted for the whole of August. Luckily, most passengers got to their destinations without too much disruption but BA was forced to spend a huge amount of money wet-leasing Qatar Airways aircraft to fill gaps in the schedule (one estimate put the cost at £5,000 per hour).
The strike was part of a much larger protest by cabin crew against the very company they work for. Since late last year, so called ‘Mixed Fleet’ cabin crew and their union, Unite, have pushed British Airways for a better pay deal with much of the protest action well documented in the global press.
Yet despite the extensive coverage, many passengers and fellow cabin crew remain confused about what the protest is actually about. Opinion remains divided on whether the strikes have been justified with many commentators making an “if you don’t like it, leave” argument.
So what’s it actually about and why hasn’t the dispute been resolved yet? Here’s a quick and dirty lowdown on everything we’ve learnt up to this point:
Remind me. Why are cabin crew protesting?
The Unite union says that ‘Mixed Fleet’ cabin crew working for British Airways are only earning £16,000, including allowances a year. That’s just over $20,500 USD. A figure they have labelled “poverty pay”.
Now, if cabin crew had joined BA knowing this was how much they were going to earn then you might think the severity of the protests were completely unjustified. If they don’t like how much they’re getting paid then they can get another job – for its part, BA says there are plenty more people who are willing to take their jobs.
But the union says their members have been misled by British Airways. They claim that the airline advertised a minimum annual salary of over £23,000 – based on a complicated mix of incentives, allowances and bonuses. Unite simply want cabin crew to earn what BA says they should earn.
The airline denies that any of their staff are earning such a low wage. Instead, they say that two independent audits have shown the annual wage to be at least £21,000 – with many cabin crew earning in excess of this figure.
But didn’t British Airways agree to raise cabin crew pay?
Yes – In May, following talks with the union, British Airways did offer a new pay deal that was put to members for a vote. Basic pay was to increase to £13,100 per year (from £12,747) and hourly flying pay would have gone from £3 to £3.14 per hour. A brand new allowance for overnight trips would also have been introduced – £10 per trip with at least one overnight stay and an additional £5 for each night away from home base.
At the time, Unite’s head of media, Alex Flynn, said the pay offer was being voted on by cabin crew but it was quickly rejected.
So why did cabin crew reject the offer?
The problem arose from conditions attached to the offer by British Airways. The airline had already stripped striking cabin crew of their staff travel privileges and the offer would mean these workers wouldn’t get their concessionary travel back for at least 12 months.
I heard the union realised the deal wasn’t that good. What’s the truth?
After closer inspection, Unite decided the pay offer wasn’t actually that good at all – in fact, they realised the total annual salary would probably remain stagnant even after the proposed pay raise.
- The overnight allowance sounded good but it would be to the detriment of performance related bonuses which would have been curtailed.
- Many cabin crew perform ‘turnaround’ flights without any overnight stay – there was no way of fairly distributing these allowances to staff.
- In fact, the union even feared that these lucrative overnight trips would be given to staff on different contracts to minimise payouts to ‘Mixed Fleet’ crew.
British Airways offered to reinstate bonus payments and concessionary travel didn’t they?
Again, you’re right. We’ve seen reports that say BA offered to return staff travel privileges and bonus payments to any member of cabin crew who stopped strike action. But we’ve been told that so far, none of these benefits has been returned to union members.
The union has argued that if British Airways was really serious about ending the protest, these benefits would have already been returned to staff.
How long can this go on for?
The two sides have now entered into a period that Unite has dubbed a ‘pause for peace’. The dispute has so far cost both sides a lot of money with the union being forced to subsidise the wages of its members. But which side will blink first? So far, it’s been British Airways who have offered the most concessions but many of these come attached with big conditions.
Negotiations are expected to start again in the next week. Unite will be likely pressing for a brand new pay deal which will be fair across the board. If the union and its members don’t get the deal they want, expect new strikes to be announced at short notice.
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.