20 Oct 2010

British Airways close to ending dispute with cabin crew

Washington Correspondent

British Airways is close to ending the long-running dispute with its cabin crew but it could be “a bittersweet resolution”, writes our Business Correspondent Siobhan Kennedy.

BA close to ending dispute with cabin crew

Sources close to the cabin crew union have told Channel 4 News that the key stumbling block to a deal has been lifted after the airline’s chief executive, Willie Walsh, agreed to give back striking staff their right to cheap flights and –crucially– to reinstate their seniority.

The way that BA‘s travel perks system works allows more senior staff – who have worked at the airline for longer – to go to the front of the queue when it comes to getting cheap tickets. But any member of staff who went on strike had their both their perks and seniority taken away.

Even though the removal of staff travel perks had not been the original reason why BA staff voted to strike, it quickly became the block that prevented them from getting round the table to discuss any deal on pay and staffing levels – the actual nub of the dispute.

Seniority clause
During various attempts to resolve the row, Willie Walsh had gone on the record countless times and said he would not reinstate the seniority clause to any staff who had been on strike. Yet Channel 4 News understands that Mr Walsh has done a U-turn, but with a twist. He’s agreed to give the staff back their seniority but only as of April 2013.

What this means is all striking members of staff will be able to get tickets at a 90 per cent discount immediately, but those who have worked for the airline the longest – and went on strike – will not be able to jump to the front of the queue for another two and half years. So it’s a bitter sweet resolution.

He’s also sweetened the pill in another way by agreeing to allow ACAS – the conciliation service – to arbitrate in the case of the 80 cabin crew members who are currently going through a disciplinary process and the 20 others who have either been fired or are about to get fired. Crucially, Mr Walsh had said in the past that ACAS could arbitrate but that he had the right to ignore their findings. Now, however, the BA boss has said he will accept any decision that ACAS makes, meaning that some striking staff who have been fired could get their jobs back.

This all sounds very amicable, but the deal comes with a twist. Mr Walsh will only keep the offer on the table so long as BASSA, the British Airways Stewards and Stewardesses Association (the union that represents the cabin crew) recommend it to their members. But that will be a tough one for the unions, who will see a recommendation as them effectively sanctioning Mr Walsh’s right to “punish” striking staff by withholding their seniority rights until 2013.

Yet, they also know that to make Willie Walsh U-turn once is a big deal, to make him U-turn twice may be impossible.

The source said that BASSA would publish details of the deal on its website later today but a recommendation, or otherwise, would be sent in the post to members this week.

If I had to put money on the outcome, all the body language and rhetoric this time round point to a deal. However BASSA phrases its letter to cabin crew, they will be left with a sense that this is the best deal they can get and should vote for it. The question is, will they?