UPDATE 12/17 @ 853a – The strike is off!
If you’re booked on British Airways for the holidays, you might be kicking yourself right now. The cabin crew (a fancy name for flight attendants) overwhelmingly voted yesterday to strike for a dozen days beginning at the end of this month. This is likely to be very painful for travelers if it happens, and the flight attendants certainly aren’t getting any sympathy from me. In fact, they get the coveted Cranky Jackass award instead.
The plan is this. Flight attendants expect to begin striking British Airways on December 22 and go for 12 straight days through January 2. Clearly this was planned in order to wait until the busy Hanukkah travel rush ended, but the flight attendants seem to have forgotten about a slightly more widely celebrated holiday called Christmas. And of course, there’s New Years as well.
So nice of them to do it right over the holidays, huh? Could they really not do this in January? Or maybe cut down from the 12 days? I guess not. The union, Unite, has apparently lived up to its name. More than 90% of the flight attendants united and voted in favor of this. Wow.
I spoke with British Airways and asked how they’re planning to deal with this. Spokesperson Michele Kropf said that since this just happened, plans are still being formed. They have, however, been internally preparing since the strike vote was first announced. The first step was for them to waive change fees during the period. If you’re traveling between December 20 and January 4, you’re able to change without penalty for up to 12 months from now. Of course, you’re probably traveling during that time because it’s the holidays, so you don’t exactly have the flexibility. But at least that option is out there.
Michele told me that they are working on their flight schedules now, but nothing has been canceled as of yet. From what I’ve seen (and this didn’t come from BA), these things generally result in at least a portion of the airline continuing to operate. There are always management crews who can step in to help, and sometimes flight attendants cross the line to work. There probably won’t be many of those in this case. History shows us that short haul flights tend to get canceled more because there are better alternates than long hauls. But I would be shocked if they could run their entire long haul schedule. It just isn’t very likely.
If you’d like to put a face on these people, here’s an interview with Len McCluskey, assistant general secretary of Unite. Watch in amazement as he tries to justify striking at Christmas yet still saying he sympathizes with customers.
What’s this fight about anyway? Oh, it’s the usual. BA has been absolutely hemorrhaging during this downturn. That’s what happens when you rely hugely on premium traffic. So, CEO Willie Walsh has proposed some pretty serious cuts in numbers and wages. The flight attendants aren’t happy and they’ve started their “United we stand” campaign. No, I swear this has nothing to do with United.
So why strike now? It appears that they think they need to make their point at the busiest time of the year. Unfortunately for them, that is highly unlikely to get them any sort of sympathy. While I know what they’re going through is difficult, striking during the holidays is simply unconscionable to me. While they might have received some sympathy for a strike during off peak times, a strike during the holidays will only hurt their cause in the public eye.
I wish everyone holding a ticket on British Airways this holiday season good luck. Hopefully this gets settled in the next week and we don’t actually see a strike, but you should be mentally prepared for the worst just in case.
[Updated 12/15 @ 417p to reflect that the comments about historical reactions didn’t come from BA but were rather my own speculation.]