Two-tiered pay scales may seem like a good idea in the beginning. But what happens six years later, when one employee group earns far more than another, even though both do the same job? British Airways is learning how hard it is to keep everyone happy.
Roughly 15 percent of British Airways’ cabin crew plan to strike for 48 hours starting Tuesday, a move likely to disrupt travel plans for many of the airline’s customers.
The crew had planned to strike on December 25 and 26, and called it off when British Airways made a new offer. But the union rejected it, and its leadership continues to argue the company is trying to pay flight attendants “poverty wages.” British Airways, meanwhile, counters that it pays fair wages that match other airlines.
British Airways said it will detail its plans on Friday for coping with the strike, promising to get all passengers to their destinations. But that likely will be more difficult than on Christmas and Boxing Day, when fewer people travel.
This proposed strike is slightly different than most in the airline industry because it covers relatively few workers. There’s a reason for this, as we explain here.
What’s the Strike About?
In 2010, when British Airways was feeling the pinch from from low-cost competition, it wanted to reduce labor costs. It’s never easy to win concessions from current employees, so after a long flight with the union, the company tried something different. It instituted a two-tiered pay scale, with long-timers remaining well-compensated and new hires earning far less money.
All cabin crew hired after 2010 belong to a group called “mixed fleet.” The flight attendants tend to be younger, and often don’t expect to make a long career out of the airline industry.
But they’re not paid well. The sides disagree on exactly how little the flight attendants make, but either way, it’s not much. The union wants to change that.
“Our young members deserve credit for standing up for themselves against a corporate giant such as British Airways in their fight for a living wage,” Len McCluskey, general secretary of the union, Unite, said in a statement. “They are entitled to have aspirations and entitled to have a decent standard of living.”
How Many Flight Attendants Does It Cover?
About 4,500 of British Airways 16,000 flight attendants work on mixed-fleet contracts. But roughly 2,000 of them don’t belong to the union, so only about 2,500 plan to strike.
These mixed-fleet flight attendants work both short haul and long haul flights. They do not, however, work on the same flights as pre-2010 hires.
British Airways says mixed crew employees operate a “minority” of flights from London Heathrow, and none from London Gatwick, London City and London Stansted.
Over time, as more employees join the company, the number of flight attendants in the mixed fleet is expected to grow.
Didn’t Flight Attendants Know What They Were Signing up For?
The union says flight attendants were misled on pay.
According to Unite, British Airways promised workers they would earn between £21,000 and £25,000, or roughly $25,800-$30,800. Instead, the union says crew members make about £12,000, plus £3 for every hour they fly.
British Airways disputes Unite’s calculations, and said last month that first-year crew members “receive over £21,000 based on pay, allowances, incentive and bonus.”
“We reject Unite’s claims about Mixed Fleet’s earnings and have offered an independent audit of our pay data over the last 12 months to support our statement that Mixed Fleet cabin crew working full-time earn more than £21,000 a year,” British Airways said at the time.
The union has said it stands by its calculations, calling the airline’s figures, “misleading.” It also notes that the airline industry is in stronger shape now than in 2010, and argues cabin crew should be paid more. In October, International Airlines Group, British Airways’ parent, predicted it would make about $2.6 billion in operating profit for 2016.
What is the union using as leverage?
Like any union facing off against a large corporation, Unite is hoping to create a narrative that shows why its members have been wronged.
It says it found that about half of mixed fleet crew members had second jobs, while more than two-thirds sometimes went to work “unfit to fly” because they couldn’t afford to take the day off. The union said 84 percent of members experienced “stress and depression” because of their finances. Unite also said some members were sleeping in their cars between flights because they couldn’t afford the gas to get home.
What is British Airways’ Response?
The company has also said that it offered mixed-fleet crew a slight raise, and it stands by that offer. The company said it would hike pay by 2 percent.
“Our proposal for our mixed fleet cabin crew reflects pay awards given by other companies in the UK and will ensure their reward levels remain in line with cabin crew at our airline competitors,” the airline said in a statement. “It is also consistent with pay deals agreed with Unite for other British Airways colleagues.”
Before the proposed Christmas strike, British Airways also took the Twitter to try to plead its case. This time, however, it has been silent.
This calculated and heartless industrial action by Unite is completely unnecessary. We are determined that it will fail. [21:22 16 Dec 2016]
— British Airways (@British_Airways) December 16, 2016
We are appalled that Unite proposes to disrupt customers’ travel plans on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. [21:22 16 Dec 2016]
— British Airways (@British_Airways) December 16, 2016
How bad will the strike be?
British Airways is telling customers it can handle it, though it says it is “disappointed that Unite has once again chosen to target our customers.”
The airline says it will do what it can to make sure all of its customers reach their destinations, though that could be on another airline.
It said it will offer more details on January 6.
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Photo credit: Many of British Airways' problems come from having a two-tiered system for flight attendant pay. British Airways