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EXCLUSIVE: British Airways could close Gatwick short-haul after BALPA pulls pilot ballot

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The British Airways plan to relaunch its short-haul operation at London Gatwick on a low cost model appeared to be on the verge of collapse last night.

BALPA, the British Airways pilot union, terminated a ballot of members after claiming that British Airways had gone back on assurances it had made.

The airline has previously said that it would not go ahead with the new carrier if it could not reach agreement with BALPA and could instead pull out of Gatwick short-haul flying entirely.

BA may close Gatwick after BALPA pulls pilot ballot

As we covered here, the cost of pilots for the new Gatwick operation represented one of the few areas where British Airways felt it could reduce costs.

BALPA would never have allowed the airline to hire new pilots on lower pay. The two sides had been working on a deal which would allow Heathrow Airbus pilots – some currently flying, some in the ‘holding pool’ – to be seconded to the new Gatwick airline. Whilst pay would have been reduced, in line with Gatwick’s more seasonal schedule, pilots would have retained their place on the seniority list and would have a guaranteed path to return to Heathrow in the future.

According to a letter circulated by BALPA last night, which we have seen:

“….. we have been trying to insert a clause in the contract of employment which would have protected the contractual rights of LGW-based pilots by placing an obligation on BA to ensure that Newco complies with any collective agreements or procedures agreed between BALPA and BA.”

In plain English, BALPA wanted Gatwick pilots to automatically receive any pay increase or other benefits negotiated by Heathrow crew.

BA may close Gatwick after BALPA pulls pilot ballot

BALPA claimed that British Airways had agreed to such an obligation but, when it came to making it legally binding, refused.

BALPA continued:

“we have received an email from BA making it clear that the company is not prepared to include the protection clause we require.”

and concludes:

“we can no longer recommend the proposed LGW shorthaul agreement. As such we have terminated the consultative ballot with immediate effect.”

It isn’t clear what happens next. British Airways won’t risk a pilot strike by recruiting a new pilot fleet on lower salaries for Gatwick. BALPA may be willing to see BA lose its Gatwick presence rather than see a split in the pilot fleet – after all, legacy cabin crew saw their pay reduced to nearer the level of newly hired Mixed Fleet in the restructuring last year.

Who blinks now? Will BA put the Gatwick slots on the market? Will BA agree to give Gatwick pilots the automatic right to new benefits given to Heathrow pilots? Will the LCC idea now be dropped and Gatwick short haul put back in its original state? Will the slots be given to Vueling – although that could also lead to a strike? We will see.


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Comments (84)

  • Nick says:

    When BA started Mixed Fleet, the legacy crew (and union) couldn’t do anything about it, because T&C for existing crew weren’t affected. There’s nothing stopping BA doing exactly the same for pilots. They wanted BALPA on board because it would be quicker and smoother, but they can still go ahead without – and any strike would be legally invalid as long as legacy T&C don’t change. BALPA have shots themselves in the foot by pushing themselves away from ‘Newco’. There are plenty of pilots wanting jobs.

    • Memesweeper says:

      Correct.

      BALPA seem to think BA can’t hire the pilots they need to in time keep the slots without BALPAs cooperation. I suspect they might be right.

      • Tim says:

        BALPA haven’t shot themselves in the foot. BA cannot hire pilots unless they’re represented by BALPA and on the main seniority list. Not having an agreement with BALPA means an operation without BA pilots. Their clear fire and rehire fails and they’re unable to drive a massive wedge between two groups of pilots and later degrade terms for all.

        It is a carbon copy of mixed fleet, but it’s failed.

        • Lady London says:

          Perfectly stated Tim.

          BA will of course blame the pilots and say they’re unreasonable.

          Pilots must insist BA puts everything they’ve promised im writing.

        • Nofanof BA says:

          It’s a newco. They can employ who ever they want. BA mainline can prostrate all they want but if the Newco want to hire pilots what’s to stop them?

          • Lady London says:

            Then they were going to do that anyway.

            Better that than drive a wedge between Heathrow pilots and those who’ve been forced to move to Gatwick, then have BA circle back and use that as the thin end of the wedge to demolish Heathrow pilots’ packages.

            On a secondment they have a right to keep package and Heathrow base so right to return to Heathrow as and when conditions create openings.

            On a transfer they have TUPE rights.

            There are ways around this but if BA does it, they were going to do it anyway.

            If BA is refusing to put in writing what has been agreed this is a very red loud warning signal I have never seen an employer subsequently keep to an agreement if they refused to put part of what was agreed into writing.

            Allowing BA to get away with this would make Gatwick the new Mid Fleet.

      • Dev says:

        Wrong! BA can get a whole load of crew in easily from the likes of Ryanair. Pay is surprisingly very competitive at RyanAir but working conditions are a slog!

        • Memesweeper says:

          Wrong aircraft type. EasyJet pilots have the correct training, but unlike the RyanAir ones, they aren’t all looking for a new employer.

          • ChasP says:

            I’m sure they could be tempted T&Cs could still be better at NewCo

            Meanwhile any BALPA action would give BA a reason to cut back on “Holding Pool” etc and cut their costs

          • ChrisC says:

            They may have the aircraft type training but one issue BA have had in the past is being able to induct new recruits on BA policies and procedures before they are let lose on actual passenger flights because they had and have a lack of pilots qualified (and willing) to act as trainers and assessors for new staff.

            Couple of years ago a pilot friend of mine had an offer to join BA but went to another airline because it would have taken months for him to get on the induction programme.

      • Nick says:

        … so BA uses existing pilots for a while, then sets up Newco a bit later than planned. Not as if there’s 100% flying at heathrow anyway. They’ll just use their current AOC for now if they have to.

        Although even the latter isn’t a certainty, as all BA pilots can contractually be moved to any IAG OpCo as long as they operate to current T&C. So the cards are in BA’s favour really.

        I personally think this is BALPA yet again screwing over the bottom of the pack to protect the oldies at whatever cost.

    • L. says:

      The difference is that anyone can be cabin crew, but not anyone can pilot the aircraft. The sad reality is that cabin crew is disposable, but flight crew is not. I am cabin crew and I know exactly what I’m talking about. In the UK one doesn’t need any prior qualifications to be cabin crew, in fact many airlines prefer to have people who never worked in this before, so they don’t bring old habits. So they can fire and rehire cabin crew as they wish, because there will be hundreds of others in line for the job.
      With pilots, the situation is entirely different. One needs a license, typewriting, hours of experience… So BA needs the pilots from BALPA, they don’t have the option to go with someone else willing to dot he job.
      It’s one of the reasons cabin crew and pilots receive completely different treatments. Whether this is right/wrong or fair/unfair is another story.

      • Mike says:

        L – thank you for your service. I may have had a drink from you in the past – if not I hope to do in the future- I always say “please and thank you”

      • Dev says:

        I would slightly disagree … thanks to all the mass marketing and slick PR from flying schools (every year, they claim that the world needs 80,000 pilots blah blah blah!), there is starting to be an abundance of pilots in Europe and the slippery slope to them being disposable has begun.

        • Dev says:

          Of course, needing £100k helps but just look at all those TV documentaries showing 18/19 year olds going through pilot training after parents mortgaged their houses, etc.

  • Catalan says:

    BALPA are playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship with BA here.
    I’m guessing too that there is little sympathy for flight crew from their cabin crew and ground staff colleagues who made financial sacrifices whilst BALPA negotiated separate ‘sweet deals’ with BA management. (Including a lucrative pensions package).
    Pilots’ unions have always been the strongest of unions in aviation. A little less so now during the Covid pandemic.

    • Mint and Tea Tree says:

      Meanwhile everyone else is wondering what this mystical sweet deal agreed with British Airways actually is.

  • Stuart says:

    What happens next no-one knows, but BA want an airline at LGW, and BALPA wants it for pilots too, and was ready to make large concessions, but those concessions needed to be legally supported.

  • George K says:

    A union’s job is to support and protect its members. If it’s as clear-cut as BA failing to put pen to paper on a verbal agreement, then I can’t fault BALPA’s approach.

    • Doug M says:

      That is main point here, if BA failed to agree to a written clause of something verbally promised then BALPA know what they’re dealing with.

      • Nick says:

        We don’t know that’s definitely what happened – we haven’t heard BA’s side. It could equally be that the union wanted to back-track and found a way. After all, they explicitly said in the ballot that everything was agreed and ‘all the Is dotted’ etc., so something changed for them.

        • George K says:

          Agreed – and I’m sure we’ll be hearing from BA soon enough. But this is the same airline which has, among other things, normalised illegally refusing compensation/duty of care payments with barefaced lies, only reneging when challenged in court. My point is: we know how they choose to treat customers, and through recent history, we know how they choose to treat their staff too.

          • Richie says:

            Viz reg 261 behaviour, businesses will always behave badly when the opportunity is there to save money, the legislation just needs to be more watertight and if the legislators don’t tweak legislation to make it more watertight they needn’t act surprised when voters don’t turnout at elections. In contract negotiations always keep an excellent record of what’s been said, it’s saved me buckets of grief and time.

    • Nofanof BA says:

      What I cannot understand is why BALPA would go to ballot before/without finalising a deal. It’s nonsense!

      • Rob says:

        Not really. If you have agreed the key points, it makes sense to do the ballot alongside the legal work to finalise it.

  • Lady London says:

    BA might like the opportunity to reneg on the Gatwick entity and blame the pilots.

    I think the pilots are right to insist that BA puts any promise in writing. Let’s face it BA has done everything it can to wriggle out of agreements or destroy them as soon as they got the opportunity.

    • Memesweeper says:

      I think IAG are desperate to get something started in Gatwick. Not because BA needs the feed, or because it was very profitable before, but to stop JetBlue/WestJet/Norwegian MkII setting up and expanding into an airport on the doorstep of fortress Heathrow with plenty of slots to sell and a second runway coming. I don’t think they care too much about a continued expansion of EasyJet.

      If they can’t get back up and running in their own right quickly I think IAG will be paying another airline (eg CityFlyer, Eastern) to slot-sit for them.

      • Doug M says:

        Second runway is a bit of stretch, even in plans it’s quite restricted I believe. JetBlue and WestJet not Euro shorthaul and who knows what Norwegian Mk II will be or if it will be.

  • Mike says:

    I thought unions were to support the potentially down trodden masses not supposedly well educated pilots – although the supposedly well educated pilots seem to have a massive chip on their shoulder – if you don’t like your job / conditions get a new job

    • Doug M says:

      Maybe the well educated are smart enough to see the value of a Union, unlike say, well some posters here.

      • Lady London says:

        +1 I got into trouble at a major company for openly saying, as a member of management, that the employees including managememt needed a union to stem the abuses (and they were not many, but they were creeping up) of our multinational owners.

        Major players in that industry, which was a new industry, had done everything they could to keep unions out and had succeeded. Whilst it’s illegal for companies to block unions my commenting we needed one was looked upon with consternation by my savvier colleagues.

    • Memesweeper says:

      If you don’t own the company you work for you probably want to join a union. How much you earn is really immaterial, and often the better paid workers have more leverage. I’ve always been in union if there was one available, even when i was a manager.

    • Ken says:

      You seem utterly clueless about unions & the whole trade union movement history , but this is common for those blowhards crying “get another job”.

  • Derek Scott says:

    It is clear the TU’s still have not learnt the lessons of the past.
    BA can never compete head on with other low cost airlines whilst tied to unrealistic pressures and demands.
    Such a shame for all those crews and support staff that had a chance of good employment.

  • Colin MacKinnon says:

    Latest issue of Flight Training News is just in (and this is normally very optimistic about the industry since training schools are its advertisers!). Sources: IATA

    European traffic by market segments, 01 Sept 2021 compared to 2019:

    Low cost: down 30%
    Traditional: down 41%
    Business aviation: up 28%
    Non-scheduled carrier: down 9%
    Cargo: up 7%

    Or Revenue per Passenger Kilometres:

    Global: down 53.1% compared to July 2019. However, in month-on-month terms RPKs picked up by 8%, the fastest growth since Nov 2020

    But: as a % of pre-crisis revenues, industry wide RPKs figures are interesting:

    For international, they are at around 20% of pre-crisis levels.

    For domestic: they got to almost 80% in July, but seemed to have dropped to around 60% in August (source: IATA Economics using IATA Monthly Statistics and DDS ticketing data)

    So, BA low cost at Gatwick? Maybe it just isn’t worthwhile for BA?
    As a pilot, I wouldn’t be worried about my pay, I’d be worried about my job!

    And in other news in FTN, Ryanair has reportedly told pilots at East Midlands Airport to expect a 70% reduction in take-home pay this winter (despite saying publicly the airline is expecting to reach pre-covid capacity in October!)

    Or according to UK Govt figures, 51% of people employed in Air Passenger Transport are still on furlough.

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