Magazine article The Spectator

Just When You Thought It Was Safe

Magazine article The Spectator

Just When You Thought It Was Safe

Article excerpt

Lady Thatcher so disliked British Airways's ethnic tailfins that she famously took out a paper napkin and covered up the tail of a model plane on the BA stand at a Tory party conference. Should she be passing a model of a BA plane in the next few days, she'll want a tablecloth to cover up the whole damn thing. It wasn't meant to end this way, not when British Airways was liberated from state control in the first flush of privatisations in the early 1980s. With the dead hand of the minister for transport lifted from its shoulder, the airline became one of the most admired British businesses of that decade. The service became responsive to consumer demand rather than to a civil servant's whim. For several years, international competitors like Air France performed dismally by comparison, flying half-empty jets with frumpy decor to destinations to which few wanted to fly.

The swipe-card dispute of the past fortnight has shown much of BA's superiority to have been an illusion. If BA seemed efficient, it was only by comparison with national carriers which remained in state hands. Twenty years after privatisation, BA remains lumbered with a remarkable quantity of its former state-owned baggage. It is riddled with overmanning and archaic working practices maintained by union militancy.

One can only sympathise with BA's chief executive, Rod Eddington. The start he has made in reforming the airline merely emphasises the scale of the problem he still faces. Since cuts were forced upon airlines in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, 10,000 British Airways staff have been made redundant. And yet still BA manages to resemble a massive job-creation scheme. For every member of staff it employs, British Airways flies 736 passengers a year. Non-unionised easyJet, by contrast, manages 6,300 passengers a year for every employee, and Ryanair 8,300 passengers. Admittedly, the airlines cannot be directly compared because BA flics long-haul services and provides some services like meals which the budget airlines do not offer. Yet does British Airways really need ten times as many staff to get a plane airborne?

It almost certainly wouldn't were it not for a range of Spanish practices devised by the unions. While pilots on easyJet and Ryanair fly 950 hours a year, British Airways pilots fly just 600. The restriction is supposedly maintained in the name of public safety - even though government health and safety rules recognise that pilots can safely fly 950 hours a year and not one aircraft owned by a British budget airline has yet come to grief.

The refusal of check-in staff to use swipe cards to sign on and off duty makes little sense without an understanding of a practice known as 'time theft'. Some staff have been going home early, relying on friends to sign them out when their shift officially ends. Fewer ground staff would be needed were it not for an agreement whereby only members of the GMB union are allowed to put the chocks beneath the wheels of arriving BA aircraft. For many years, the unions also insisted on sending two buses to ferry air crew to planes where one would have been adequate.

Reacting to the 10,000 job losses since 2001, the unions have accused British Airways of cutting staff to a level no longer compatible with public safety. They have cited as evidence a recent rise in staff sickness. It is a familiar tactic, much employed by the unions back in the 1970s: frighten the public to try to win sympathy. Unfortunately, BA staff have cried off sick once too often: in 1997, 1,500 air-crew signed off sick in a single day in a dispute over pay and conditions.

That British Airways caved in to the unions' demands on that occasion is symptomatic of the problems which a private company faces when it takes over the heavily unionised staff of a former nationalised industry. While the government could afford to sit out the firefighters' dispute for months, relying on the army to fill the gap, a private company is less able to afford a protracted industrial dispute. …

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