Collision Course

By Lloyd, John | New Statesman (1996), July 11, 1997 | Go to article overview

Collision Course


Lloyd, John, New Statesman (1996)


British Airways versus the Transport Union: who will alter course first? The union, probably

British Airways is one tough airline. It became famous in the 1980s for improving efficiency through a scouring of its staff and executives, a policy initiated by Lord (John) King after he took over in 1981 to prepare it for privatisation. It became infamous for its dirty tricks in the latter part of the 1980s, which were exposed and for which it was punished in the courts. Now it has confronted employees contemplating strike action with a battery of threats, some of them unprecedented in this country.

The efficiency drive initiated by King has worked. BA is now the leader among European airlines in terms of efficiency and among the best in service. Industry insiders say only the much smaller Dutch KLM and the German Lufthansa match it. The scale of its achievement still has to be matched by carriers such as Air France, Alitalia and Iberia. Its dominance of the Heathrow terminals gives it hegemony over the world's great transit point. It is consistently profitable and one of the clearest case studies of the success of privatisation; as such, BA is constantly used as an advertisement for a revitalised, successful Britain.

But its success had a darker side. It conducted a series of dirty tricks against the fledgling Virgin airline in the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in the humiliation of an admission of disreputable behaviour in the High Court in 1992. BA paid [pounds]610,000 to Richard Branson and to Virgin, and [pounds]4.5 million in legal costs to be free of the action, and agreed to an apology that exculpated its own senior executives - Lord King, the chairman, Sir Colin Marshall, chief executive and Robert Ayling, then head of marketing - in favour of blaming its then public relations consultant, Brian Basham, and implicitly its PR director, David Burnside. Basham was later granted an injunction against a book which documents the affair, Martyn Gregory's Dirty Tricks, while the case, which Basham won in the high court, goes to appeal.

BA's apology did not, however, explain how senior executives could have worked so long for the airline without some of their remarkable activities being noticed by a senior management which prided itself on hands-on control. Worse, Virgin has another anti-trust suit in preparation in the US - as does Laker Airways, an old and once-defeated antagonist of BA.

In a famed series of columns written in the Times after the court case, Bernard Levin wrote that "Lord King presided over an enterprise that would have had the mafia saluting, while his fetcher and carrier, Sir Colin Marshall, trotted behind him."

King was later quoted as saying that "had Richard Branson worn a pair of steel-rimmed glasses, a double-breasted suit and shaved off his beard, I would have taken him seriously. As it was I couldn't."

A bad mistake to underestimate the founder of Virgin, though King retained honoured positions at BA and Babcock. Sir Colin Marshall moved to the BA chairmanship and became president of the CBI. Robert Ayling has taken over the airline and now, in the tradition of his predecessors, is employing the world's favourite airline's favourite posture toward those within its ranks who are seen to impede its progress: that of the hard, sharp nose.

Ayling has threatened an ascending scale of sanctions against strikers including loss of staff travel privileges, loss of early retirement rights, loss of seniority for promotion, loss of employment and suits in the civil courts. He has made it clear that those employees who strike and keep their employment will be treated as second class compared with those who work on. It is attempting, if not to tame the union concerned, the Transport and General Workers Union - the country's second largest - then certainly to teach it a harsh lesson.

The large question hanging over this action, coming as it does in the first hundred days of a new Labour government is this: are we seeing a renewal of union strength and a willingness to confront a cost-cutting employer? …

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