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Why are British Airways pilots supporting the new low cost carrier at Gatwick?

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On Thursday we broke the story that British Airways was planning to launch a new low cost subsidiary at London Gatwick Airport.

The new carrier would replace the existing British Airways short-haul operation. At present, it isn’t clear if it will be branded ‘British Airways’ with standard BA service, or some variant of ‘British Airways’ (eg ‘BA Baby’) or something completely different (‘Cruz’?).

The letter sent to British Airways staff made it clear that staff terms and conditions were in the firing line. So why is BALPA, the BA pilot union, so keen?

BALPA issued a statement on Thursday which said:

“BALPA cautiously welcomes this decision to restart BA short haul operations at LGW and create a number of much needed new pilot jobs.

“BALPA and BA are in the final stages of negotiations over the revised pay and conditions for Gatwick based BA pilots and we hope to bring these talks to a conclusion shortly.”

This doesn’t sound like a union which is worried about its members getting shafted with degraded terms and conditions.

There is a good reason for this. They won’t be.

Based on discusions I have had with two BA pilots who are regular HfP readers, this is the current position:

  • the pilots will NOT be employed by the new low cost carrier – they will be employed by British Airways and seconded to the new airline
  • they will retain their position on the BA ‘seniority list’, the hugely complex internal pilot ranking system which decides which pilots get to choose the flights they want and who ends up with the remnants
  • terms and conditions will be generally unchanged, apart from necessary changes to reflect the seasonality of the Gatwick operation (ie fewer hours in Winter, potentially resulting in lower overall pay than they received at Heathrow)
  • pilots will have some sort of priority for short haul jobs which come up at Heathrow

I understand that jobs will be offered first to existing British Airways short-haul pilots who wish to move from Heathrow for some reason.

If more are required, new jobs will be offered to those who were made redundant last year and those on the Community Retention Scheme. This pool contains 300 pilots who are not flying but who continue to be paid – not by BA but via a salary deduction from those who are in the air.

These are, I should stress, still proposals at this point with no final agreement made with the airline.

The risk, of course, is that by supporting the launch of this new airline, BALPA is setting in train a series of events which will negatively impact all of its members. At some point British Airways will start hiring new pilots for the low cost carrier for less than it is paying at Heathrow, and the airline may eventually find an excuse to impose the same terms on existing pilots.

British Airways Gatwick Airport new low cost carrier

If pilot costs are not coming down, what is left?

You would, at this point, be forgiven for wondering exactly what costs are going to be cut to make this new carrier even leaner than the old Gatwick operation.

There is minimal movement possible in fleet, fuel and landing costs. BA’s distribution system is an existing fixed cost, unless it adds cost by launching a new brand and website. Ground staff at Gatwick were already outsourced. Pilot salaries are not going to change, unless hours change, because they will be secondees from mainline BA.

You could look at cabin crew costs, but pre-covid Gatwick crew were already paid less than their Heathrow colleagues. Realistically there is very little to cut here. Staff travel and other flying perks have a low cash cost to fulfill.

If the British Airways brand is retained, it is likely that Club Europe, lounges, free snacks and water, Avios, checked through baggage, elite benefits etc will need to remain too. This adds cost.

If a new brand is introduced, costs can be lower (no Avios, no lounges, no snacks, no connecting baggage, no elite benefits) but ticket sales and / or average fares will also be lower. People who would have flown BA are likely to choose easyJet over a new IAG airline with an unknown name.

Lufthansa has tried doing something similar with Eurowings. It has been a financial disaster. Iberia Express is, admittedly, doing better but it doesn’t face the same level of competition as ‘BA Express’ would face at Gatwick from easyJet, Wizz Air and Ryanair.


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Comments (86)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • Paul says:

    I thinks its quite simple. BALPA are weak, pilots are driving lorries and working in supermarkets. The world is awash with qualified pilots who are not flying and they need BA to continue operating at LGW is whatever guise BA choose.
    For the first time in forever, pilots do not have the upper hand, the airlines do.

    • Rob says:

      Someone sent me a note to say one of the pilots in the photo is currently teaching science.

      • Pete M says:

        How… embarrassing… for her? 🤔

        • ChrisC says:

          Strange that you think teaching science is embarassing.

          • Pete M says:

            My comment was sarcastic – hence the emoji. Rob seems to think so?

          • Rob says:

            I wrote it as statement of ‘fact’ (to the extent that the person who told me is correct). Given how many ex pilots I see on LinkedIn who are now driving for Ocado she is better off than many ex colleagues.

          • John says:

            (Joke) those who can’t do, teach

  • TimM says:

    “If a new brand is introduced, costs can be lower (no Avios, no lounges, no snacks, no connecting baggage, no elite benefits”

    Token Avios collection, an a minor incentive to draw the collectors from easyJet, no redemptions, paid-for lounges, paid-for meals, snacks & drinks, paid-for hold luggage and certainly no elite benefits. Low-cost airlines make their money from filling the seats and upselling/cross-selling extras plus, especially in the case of easyJet, the efficient, relentless inflight service of over-priced drinks and food.

    You can also bet your Pound coin that the next airline will be the default choice for BA holidays with a loyal customer base pre-installed.

    • Frankie says:

      I think EasyJet’s drinks and food are reasonable and varied. And cheaper than BA’s buy on board too.

  • Dev says:

    A slippery slope to cuts in the long term! this is a tricky balancing act … if they introduce a new brand, the loyalty towards BA at Gatwick goes down the pan but if they dilute BA to Gatwick to a BAsic no frills hybrid model, loyalty to BA goes down the pan!

  • Paul says:

    If you call it British Airway, no matter what you add before or after that name, and use BA liveried aircraft then it will fail. The expectations will be its “BA”

    A reminder we have be here before and it was called “Go” it didn’t fly from LGW but was used as a stick to reduce cost, takeaway benefits and make changes to employment T&Cs. Once those were done Go was sold!
    It’s hard to be believe that there is much more cost that can be stripped out of LGW with it being an entirely new entity or backfilling with Vueling.

    The real issue however is the restrictions on travel, the expense of testing and the governments chaotic and irrational traffic light system. Eg where I am now. Greece is Amber but it’s infection rate is a 10th of the U.K.’s and no testing required just vaccination

    • Proftimotei says:

      I agree with what you say, and maybe with the industry suffering so much from the effects of lockdowns and reduced travel it’s not the moment to launch a new airline. If they use the BA name, as you say, there’ll be expectations regarding the service. Why don’t they just have two classes on board for short haul flights, like they do now? If they are so worried about the cheap ticket holders having unpaid for perks, make it three classes!

  • Winchpete says:

    The harsh reality in present circumstances in many jobs is either accept inferior conditions and have a job or be unemployed.

    • anon says:

      I personally don’t want to be flown anywhere by stressed, broke crew who are there because they have no choice, but also have to maintain a second job so they can make ends meet.

  • TeesTraveller says:

    To be fair, SeanM broke this on Twitter first, even if he didn’t have as much detail.

  • Mike says:

    Unions are always short-sighted. I was once part of an thing that held a seat committee in a public sector organisation. There was management, unions and me. The management had some pay as you go car parks the public could use but the staff got a sweetheart deal allowing to park in a city centre for just over £1.50 per week. The public were charged much much more than that per day. Anyway, each staff member was getting a space at a massive loss, not enough to keep the multi-storey car park up. Management wanted a large increase in rates. I suggested that management agree to the principle of charging just the cost to keep a space maintained. This worked out at about £3 a week at the time, I also got the management to agree that it take 5 years to reach the maintenance level. Unions shot it down, with lots of my members can’t afford nonsense, not looking a the big picture of what a reasonable cost was not what they had managed to get away with. Anyway, long story short in less than 5 years they were charged significantly more than I negotiated. They should have gone with my deal and locked into a cost model for the future. I heard recently they no longer get any discount. I hate unions, they protect bad staff, always look backwards and never ever understand that their staff have a stake in the company actually surviving.

    • Doug M says:

      Yeah in London unions really haven’t worked for the Tube drivers.

      • Totally confused says:

        In what respect. Bob Crow (I hated him) achieved quite a lot

        • Rob says:

          That was sarcasm. Half the trains are self driving but people get £50k per year to sit in the cab to ‘reassure the public’ 🙂

          • Lady London says:

            Even the French unions in Toulouse didn’t get away with that.

          • Pete M says:

            Or, you know, make sure people don’t get squashed in the doors with the train speeding off and smacking them against the tunnel portal. The cost of removing operators from legacy tube lines is going to be astronomical (you will need platform-edge doors everywhere or some new technology, for instance). And you will always have someone on board, like the DLR, so you will replace a £50k person with a £25-30k person – who can still strike and stop the whole system.

          • Pete says:

            Is that so different from airline pilots?

          • Totally confused says:

            Not strictly true. They operate the doors and are there with a wealth of knowledge when things go wrong, which they do frequently. Think it was last year a child’s coat got trapped in the doors or the child slipped between train and gap and it was only because the driver monitors the cameras & override the ATO that his life was saved.

          • Rob says:

            … a job which could be swapped for a conductor earning literally half that, as happens on the DLR.

      • Mike says:

        That’s the problem with the public sector, your employer has near infinite pockets and at best is aiming for breakeven.

        There’s a reason that union membership is twice as high in the public sector as private sector.

  • Simonbr says:

    Is there any suggestion that BA will discontinue flying short haul from LHR? Getting to lgw is a pain from Oxford..

    • Rob says:

      Not possible – they won’t give up the slots.

    • Lyn says:

      In normal times BA short haul provides a lot of European feeder routes for long haul flights from Heathrow. So this seems unlikely.

    • Nick says:

      No, Simon, but there’s even better news for you. There will soon again be direct trains from Oxford to Gatwick. GWR are going to use the ‘new’ 769 fleet to join up the Oxford-Didcot and Reading-Gatwick services. So even if you refuse to use the (perfectly decent) coach, you’ll have an alternative 😊

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