A crossroads is here, and British Airways is in grave risk of becoming the next low cost airline, with high cost seats and even loftier expectations from customers.
Through vicious gamesmanship from parent company IAG, the airline has been accused of using the covid-19 crisis as a means of slashing staff costs, with many cabin crew members told to accept a 50% pay cut, or almost assuredly face dismissal along with 12,000 other colleagues.
Even if you don’t care about the livelihoods of British Airways many cabin crew, pilots, ground staff and office workers, you may care about how the changes could impact your next flight, and so far, the cuts look dreadful as the airline eliminates customer service previously reserved for high achieving cabin crew with excellent customer satisfaction in favor of cheap labor.
For many at BA, the pay cut means dipping onto the poverty line, or facing unemployment in a time when hiring isn’t exactly en vogue. But that’s not why we’re here. People built lives and families on an understanding of general compensation numbers, and are now being asked to take a mere fraction.
We’re here because senior cabin crew members responsible for the professionalism and service of crews are being ditched, and years of expensive attempts to claw back “premium airline” standards are all but assured to disappear in favor of eye rolls and tuts when you ask about that extra pack of peanuts.
All airlines are in the midst of great change and new measures to ensure a future, but British Airways is the only airline going “this” far to settle long held disputes with staff. Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways parent company IAG is using his final months “in office” to seal his legacy as the most ruthless airline executive in modern history, where cost cutting trumps even modest livelihoods.
Walsh was recently called to Parliament in the UK to account for using a crisis to slash wages over 50% for some, and remove 12,000 vital jobs after receiving government assistance and payroll protection guarantees.
For cynics, the move is just the latest continuation of British Airways long decline into a low cost carrier in everything but branding, but going beyond hyperbole, the airline was on a trend for luxury and success over the last 24 months. British Airways was becoming “great”, with new seats, lounges, technology across all cabins and even new planes, but without great people, or with fewer of them, gains will be hard to recognize.
Among the many awful terms in British Airways new unified contracts, where all cabin crew are forced to fly both short haul and long haul, removing the merit based hierarchy from staff is one of them. There will only be two types of cabin crew member – those at manager level and those at cabin crew level, down from three levels of achievement.
Having a unified contract for all employees makes sense, and creates greater consistency, but that absolutely does not account for the brutal working conditions or pay cuts which are a part of the new terms. A full salary of £24,000 per year is expected for cabin crew, which is an inflated number since it accounts for per diem to recover costs while down range in cities outside of London.
For senior customer service leaders and customer service directors who devoted decades to the airline and rightfully earned raises over time to levels near £60,000 or more, the new £32,000 annual wage is quite a shock, and crew are being told there’s no “wiggle” room.
Know this: most were nowhere near that somewhat comfortable level, and the new cuts take away any gains and lifestyle earned in years of service.
Ask yourself this: will someone who made up to 60K last year, who now must work more hours for half the pay still smile at you the same way they did before, after watching 12,000 colleagues get tossed aside?
Rather than having a customer service director (CSD) in charge of the entire crew, and then customer service leaders in charge of each cabin, there will simply be one person in charge of the entire plane, and then a bunch of entry level staff living on or below the poverty line, some of whom just took 50% pay cuts manning the rest of the aircraft.
This matters because “something” happens on every flight, everyone is a critic, and having dedicated members of a team in each cabin to field issues from passengers and aircraft seating issues created a crucial safety net for customer satisfaction. With the vast majority of British Airways profits coming from corporate contracts between New York and London, as well as other key business markets, the so called “little” details make “big” differences.
With the introduction of new business class “suites” complete with privacy doors, improved lounge offerings and even an investment in decent catering, British Airways was on an upward trend, even if it was taking longer than many would’ve wished. Enhanced cabin crew training and educational courses in hospitality were winning major contracts and improving customer “net promoter” scores, and new facilities such as ‘The First Wing’ at London Heathrow were helping too.
The new moves however, which pit staff against airline, and remove incentives to move up the ranks beyond one grade, are a clear signal of turbulence ahead for passengers, crew and British Airways.
If there’s one thing I’ve seen in my many years of flying hundreds of thousands of miles per year, it’s that when cabin crew hate their jobs, or feel highly underpaid or undervalued, it’s bad news for everyone. American Airlines, a transatlantic Oneworld partner of British Airways is a prime example.
Each traveler approaches their journey with a different perspective, but for an airline with such a sharpened focus on lucrative transatlantic business travelers, it’s hard to see how this environment of rags and riches won’t turn toxic. Business travelers have expectations on service levels, even in a post covid-19 world, and removing the crew members best prepared to field any issues, or forcing them to work more for more than 50% less in some cases just doesn’t add up.
If British Airways continues to push things through as is, the premium branding it’s groveled to achieve in the last few years will fall by the wayside.
I bought in when the airline said it could still be premium despite removing free food and drinks on short haul flights, and I certainly bought in when it added state of the art seats to long haul flights, but I can’t ever buy into believing you’ll achieve the same level of premium satisfaction from crew who are making less than ever before and working much harder for it.
but these same fantastic #BritishAirways staff are flying in our PPE and vital imports. Name me another UK organisation firing frontline #coronavirus staff. @Britiish_Airways management are a national disgrace #backinthehold https://t.co/qw89ZS3Tar
— Huw Merriman MP (@HuwMerriman) May 16, 2020
It’s becoming a lot easier to see why Huw Merriman, Chairman of the UK Transportation Select Committee recently called the airline a national disgrace. Whether you do or do not believe the airline is acting beyond things necessary to survive, you surely can’t believe the airline will retain a premium branding.