Five days after we exclusively broke the story that BA pilot union BALPA had refused to support the new low cost model proposed for Gatwick Airport, British Airways has officially pulled the plug.
All Gatwick short-haul flying is now suspended. Flights have been removed from sale.
The only exception will be a handful of domestic services to connect to the banks of long-haul Caribbean departures.
In a statement to Sky News, BA said:
“After many years of losing money on European flights from the airport, we were clear that coming out of the pandemic, we needed a plan to make Gatwick profitable and competitive.
“With regret, we will now suspend our short-haul operations at Gatwick, with the exception of a small number of domestic services connecting to our long-haul operation, and will pursue alternative uses for the London Gatwick short-haul slots.”
In a staff email circulated today, quoted by Sky News, BA states that the terms offered to BALPA were:
“the best that could be achieved in order to create a viable and sustainable operation at London Gatwick”.
BALPA’s acting general secretary, Martin Chalk, said:
“We are disappointed that we couldn’t come to arrangements that were acceptable to our members. We stand ready to work with BA to find such arrangements that could be acceptable.”
Why did BALPA refuse to support the new short haul operation?
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 week, 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.
BALPA claimed that British Airways had agreed to such an obligation but, when it came to making it legally binding, refused.
“we have received an email from BA making it clear that the company is not prepared to include the protection clause we require.”
“we can no longer recommend the proposed LGW shorthaul agreement. As such we have terminated the consultative ballot with immediate effect.”
It seems that, earlier this week, British Airways came back to the table with a new proposal which addressed these issues. The union has refused to support it, however, because there is no longer any willingness from the pilot body to go along with this plan in any form. A revised proposal put together by the union, with improved pay and scheduling, was apparently rejected by the airline.
It is worth noting that there are no dedicated British Airways short haul pilots at Gatwick, all having taken redundancy, transferred to Heathrow or joined the ‘holding pool’, so the closure will not directly lead to any redundancies. It will impact the remaining furloughed Gatwick short haul cabin crew.
What happens next?
British Airways has a few options up its sleeve.
It could try to revive a BA operation at Gatwick with a new non-unionised pilot fleet, but this would break a legal agreement with BALPA over representation. It would almost certainly lead to a strike that would ground the airline.
The slots could be passed to other IAG carriers such as Aer Lingus, Vueling or LEVEL. With minimal UK brand recognition, however, it is hard to see them succeeding where BA could not.
The final option is a sale of the short haul slots. Wizz Air would pay a handsome price for them, and easyJet would also do whatever was necessary to find the money. It would be a once in a generation opportunity to get a dominant position at London Gatwick.
Oddly, according to Cirum data, BA’s withdrawal won’t have much impact on the reach of Gatwick Airport. There are only four BA routes from Gatwick which are not served by any other Gatwick airline – Algiers, Cologne/Bonn, Genoa and Manchester – and Manchester is likely to remain as a feeder.
The BA call centre is going to be busy though. Cirum notes that, purely for July 2022, British Airways has 1,881 short-haul flights scheduled from Gatwick, with 331,000 seats available. If you were planning to call BA about anything, I’d do it now before the cancellation emails start going out ….
You can read more on Sky News here. British Airways has yet to make a statement.
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