“I’ve had plenty of luck over the last five years, all of it bad.”
So said Sir Rod Eddington, former chief executive of British Airways, the man who steered the airline through the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and an outbreak of the SARS virus 18 months later.
Sir Rod, an easy-going Australian who was liked by just about everyone in the industry including BA’s arch-rival Sir Richard Branson, was reflecting not on 9/11 but on an industrial dispute that afflicted BA just as he was preparing to step down in August 2005.
Read more: British Airways workers at Heathrow vote to strike during school summer holidays
A strike at Gate Gourmet, a contract catering firm that supplied meals to BA, spilled over into the airline itself – costing it around £45m in cancelled flights.
The relevance of this episode, 17 years ago, is that it highlighted problems specific to BA at Heathrow – where the main staff unions had a reputation for being more militant than elsewhere around the country.
As Sir Rod noted at the time: “Ask yourself what’s happened at Gatwick, where we have a very big union? At Birmingham and Manchester? Nothing.”
To judge from today’s vote by check-in staff, who are members of Unite, BA still appears to have a Heathrow problem.
The airline’s comment today that its Heathrow-based employees had declined an offer that had been accepted by colleagues elsewhere across the network is eerily familiar to the remarks made by Sir Rod all those years ago.
To that can be overlaid the generally challenging industrial relations at BA – which are a legacy of its past as a state-owned industry.
Union membership is significantly higher in the public sector than in the private sector and it is no coincidence that it is companies that were once state-owned – like BA, Royal Mail and, to a lesser extent, BT – which tend to have worse industrial relations than most private companies.
Union representation among BA employees is significantly higher than competitors like Virgin…