British Airways’ centenary celebrations may be about to turn sour just days after praise was heaped on the airline when it unveiled a nostalgic retro liveried Boeing 747 aircraft adorned in the paintwork of its predecessor company, the British Overseas Airways Corporation. The reason is an escalating dispute between the airline and it’s Gatwick-based cabin crew that could cause havoc and mass cancellations.
Cabin crew at Britain’s second busiest airport, located around 30 miles south of Central London, have voted overwhelmingly in favour of instigating a formal industrial dispute procedure against British Airways in a bid to improve working conditions and prevent the imposition of new rules.
The proposal was backed by 99.4% of voters with a turnout of over 80% of BA’s 1500+ Gatwick-based cabin crew. If negotiations between the two sides fail, the dispute could ultimately end with cabin crew walking out on strike.
British Airways cabin crew at the Sussex airport typically earn less than their counterparts based at Heathrow Airport – even so-called ‘Mixed Fleet’ cabin crew. Gatwick crew operate largely leisure holidaymaker flights with a mixture of mainly short-haul services, as well as longer flights to the United States and the Caribbean.
With intense competition from the likes of low-cost rival Norwegian, bosses at British Airways chose Gatwick as the testbed for refitting several Boeing 777 aircraft to a 3-4-3 seating configuration in Economy. That may well be industry standard nowadays but British Airways was one of the few airlines to buck the trend – a similar ‘densification’ programme at Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific has caused a lot of consternation from cabin crew.
Apparently, the Unite union which represents Gatwick cabin crew successfully petitioned British Airways to provide extra crew rest seats so as to avoid splitting breaks into three rather than the current two. But according to the union, British Airways saw cabin crew as therefore being “indebted” to the company because the crew seats would lose the airline £1 million in revenue per year.
As a result, BA has allegedly told staff it will no longer provide them with as much time downroute on certain trips, including Las Vegas, despite a memorandum of understanding between the union and the airline.
And it’s not just Gatwick-based cabin crew who could vote in favour of strike action. A second dispute affecting not only cabin crew but also pilots and ground staff at Heathrow Airport is likely to come to a head within the next few months unless the different sides can find some common ground.
Unions representing the three workgroups are collectively demanding a 5% pay rise and increased profit sharing but it’s believed that the offer British Airways has put on the table falls well below this. As it stands, unions haven’t yet decided what action they will take but everything – including strike action – is very much on the cards.
It was recently revealed that a similar dispute at Air France in 2018 cost the airline €335 million and led to the ousting of the chief executive.
In an emailed statement, British Airways told us they “are working closely with our unions to take a positive approach towards the ongoing pay talks.” They also explained that was currently being asked of cabin crew was “normal practice and well within industry and regulatory standards.”
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.