Aviation is supposed to be more fun than I experienced on Monday. On the first day of a 48-hour strike by British Airways’ pilots, I spent the morning in and around Heathrow and the afternoon at Gatwick.
They are, respectively, the busiest two-runway and the busiest single-runway airports in the world. But not on yesterday or today. As BA’s two main hubs, they were far quieter than usual. At Heathrow, more than half the day’s flights were cancelled. As the gap between departures stretched to five minutes or more, there was a sense of being transported back to the Seventies – the last time, I calculate, when the load on the runways was so light.
At Gatwick, most of the British Airways short-haul fleet had been towed overnight to a rarely visited area at the northwest of the airport. Among the nine Airbus A320s I counted was one in the livery of British European Airways – which disappeared when BEA merged with BOAC in 1974 to form British Airways.
The more I saw of the signals from BA and the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) during Monday, the more their dispute looked like a throwback to the dismal industrial relations days of the early 1970s. The first jumbo jet delivered to BOAC sat on the ground at Heathrow for a year while Balpa and the airline argued about crewing levels and pay rates for the Boeing 747.
There are, dare I say it, striking similarities between that unhappy episode and today’s dispute: a union representing outstanding pilots unable to reach an agreement with an airline investing for the future, with rival airlines benefitting handsomely from their squabble.
Much has been made of the generous rewards enjoyed already by British Airways pilots, and of the fact that the financial distance between the two sides is tiny in comparison with the £100m BA is set to lose from this first two-day strike – along with an unquantifiable amount in goodwill and passengers booking with other carriers.
But the pay dispute is a proxy for a deeper problem: a lack of trust and respect. The pilots, a cautious and conservative bunch by nature, feel undervalued by British Airways. The airline’s bosses, meanwhile, believe flight crew refuse to accept that the aviation world is utterly different from the cosy days when normal people could not afford to fly. Ferocious competition means that fares are lower than the have ever been, while immense professionalism means aviation is safer than ever.
This has stopped being an arithmetical dispute, and is now emotional. BA and the pilots’ union do not need arbitration so much as counselling. And the longer they put it off, the more the passengers will suffer.