British Airways Is Laying Off All Its Flight Attendants, And Re-Hiring At Half Pay

About a week and a half ago word came out about British Airways restructuring their flight attendant workgroup. Currently there are three separate groups – long haul (legacy), short haul (legacy), and lower-paid, newer ‘mixed fleet’ who fly both long haul and within Europe. These groups do not work the same flights together.

The arrangement comes out of a flight attendants strike in 2010, which British Airways largely crushed, operating many of their scheduled flights with temporary flight attendants. As a customer it was nerve wracking, not knowing until the last minute whether a flight would operate. And service levels were reduced, I got shrink wrapped sandwiches flying first class London – Toronto at the time. But BA showed their flight attendants were replaceable, and got ‘B scales,’ the ability to hire new crew at lower rages.

Now BA is going to combine everyone into a single work group, at lower pay. Senior long haul flight attendants based at London Heathrow will see pay cuts estimated between 50% – 75%.

A British Airways flight attendant posted a long message to Facebook about the plight of cabin crew, who are preparing to all be let go – yes, all will be let go – and then some hired back at lower pay.

On 15th June, I will be made redundant from the job I love after 34 years of loyal service. Redundancy notices are to be issued to 43,000 of my colleagues: the entire workforce. Yep, you heard right!

31,000 “lucky” former employees will then be offered re-employement on a far inferior contract that the company has wanted to enforce since 2010. For me, this would represent a 60% pay cut. Again, you heard right!

She complains about the high pay of the group CEO, the profits of the airline, and the amount of cash they have on hand while doing this. I don’t find those arguments persuasive. The group CEO’s comp was for past performance, driving significant profits. And those profits and cash on hand won’t last forever, nor should they be invested in money-losing enterprises. Still, what British Airways is doing is rather striking.

  • For people who say the U.S. is less progressive than Europe, I wonder if this challenges your assumptions?

  • British Airways is going to be a smaller airline going forward. They will need fewer people. That’s true of U.S. airlines, too, though perhaps it’s even more true for BA which is almost entirely an international airline. U.S. domestic route networks will buffer them somewhat in the near-term.

  • And of course while U.S. airlines have commitments to keep staff employed through September 30, in exchange for subsidies (they’re still cutting the amount of employee pay), BA has no such obligations in exchange for its £300 million subsidized loan from the U.K. government as well as deferred air traffic control fees.

  • In the U.S. airlines are going to lay off employees, but for the most part union contracts will mean they have to lay off the most junior, and least expensive, while retaining the most costly employees. In order to abrogate their contracts they’d have to go through bankruptcy and convince a judge, and there are hurdles to overcome.

  • While I’m inclined to believe the airline ought to be able to offer employment terms it wishes, and folks should be able to voluntarily accept those terms, that actually already happened through collective bargaining and British Airways should be obligated to keep those terms through the end of the deal.

    Here I’m talking morally, not as an assessment of U.K. law. The union says the airline is abusing the furlough process and it’s tough to disagree. A strike, of course, doesn’t have much force against a largely grounded airline.

Where I really part ways from BA is the recognition that their entire engine of profitability is their privileged position at London Heathrow airport. They have a lock on what’s been the most premium and most lucrative airport in the world to fly from. And that’s a privilege that’s been granted them them, for free, by the U.K. government (some of their takeoff and landing slots have been acquired from other airlines, like british midland, which had acquired theirs free from the U.K. government).

Heathrow slots amount to corporate socialism. That’s equally true for Virgin Atlantic. So pleas of market freedom and competition ring hollow.

British Airways itself was formed by the U.K. government, under the auspices of the Civil Aviation Act of 1971, combining BOAC and British European Airways. It received government protection from competition, with the U.K. refusing to allow competing scheduled flights by other British carriers (British Caledonian was forced to drop New York – London and Los Angeles – London as well as East African routes.) The carrier was privatized in 1987 under the Thatcher government.

I’d be comfortable taking back all the slots at Heathrow and auctioning them off for a 10 year period. Taking those slots from BA might gain a bit of support now, since they’re no longer pretending to act for the public good.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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