a large airplane on a runway

British Airways is not a flag carrier, though it enjoys many of the privileges of being one. For example, it controls 51% of the slots at Heathrow, the airport with the most expensive slots in the entire world. Those slots weren’t purchased, they were gifts from the government during many years of anti competitive protection, before BA emerged as a privatized airline.

In comparison to every other global private airline around the world, British Airways has used the public health crisis as an instrument to go above and beyond what’s necessary to survive with planned staff cuts, arguably settling decades old scores to reduce employee pay to subsistence levels, and that’s only after they fire everyone and demand anyone wishing to be rehired agree to the ghastly terms.

Weeks back, View From The Wing suggested one instrument to ensure fair and equitable terms for British Airways staff reduction and restructuring plans, was to take away their “free” slots, which were never bought or earned, if the airline refused to negotiate without such disdain for the livelihoods of its own people.

Apparently, the idea is catching on. Should it?

Huw Merriman, Transportation Secretary for Parliament, recently floated the idea in a session of parliament. It’s awfully funny for British Airways to complain about competition from airlines in the Middle East and abroad when it specifically benefited from decades of anti competition protections, not to mention decades of public funding, albeit under a slightly different moniker.

I’d say the gift of 51% control of the world’s most premium airport slots is a pretty generous public benefit, for a non flag carrier of course. Particularly one that has spent the majority of the covid-19 crisis not only pursuing subsistence wages for whichever employees it rehires after firing all of them, but also re-coding its website to remove legal refund options from customers.

Sure, a small portion of the slots were acquired from defunct airlines, but the vast majority were non competitive gifts from the British taxpayer, by way of her majesty’s government. God save the slots…

The fundamental question parliament  and the British people should look at, is does the country deserve better, and would selling the slots in auction actually make UK aviation more competitive- aka better for customers?

No one has a silver bullet answer, and there are many areas where British Airways has improved remarkably over the last few years. In terms of long haul flying, the airline is quickly modernizing not only its fleet, but seats in all cabins. On short haul, the airline has become more competitive with low cost offerings, creating more choice with the benefit of a strong loyalty program, miles earning and improving Heathrow facilities.

Even then, British Airways doesn’t rate as “the best” in any cabin, and still lags far from it with a majority of the ageing fleet and offerings, leaving an open door for the argument that the British public could be better served with at least a large portion of those slots auctioned to other airlines.

As new and innovative airline offerings emerge, where things like privacy doors in business class become the standard, not the exception, and huge entertainment screens come to economy along with wireless technology, British Airways will have a harder time pushing its case for retaining those slots.

Perhaps, the best answer would be to pursue more equitable solutions for British Airways employees, which don’t give the government a reason to stop effectively subsidizing its business. Modern day British Airways was built on government aide, and if it wishes to retain those gifts, taking care of its people seems like a fair place to start.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. With a wordsmith of your productivity, I am sure the occasional typo will slip in . Are you sure that you don’t mean UK Government SHOULD strip BA of it’s inherited landing slots?
    Whilst we’re at it, perhaps UK consumer law should apply inside their cabins inc. payment of VAT on purchases and in respect of the extortionate seat charges rarely refunded even when not delivered.

  2. I would much rather have BA at Heathrow rather than a large collection of airlines. Instead of having one airline operating to many destinations we would have a large collection of airlines fighting for business. It’s true that on many routes, prices would go down but there would be fewer destinations and realistically connecting at Heathrow would become an even bigger mess than it already is. This just seems like the government are using it as their primary weapon in order to stop BA from implementing the cuts and new contracts

  3. Take the slots, the redundant staff and flag carrier status – start ‘British Airlines’ as the new, nationalised UK airline (I believe this will require EU negotiation and would be a significant part of Brexit talks).

    No unemployment. Initial start up costs but ongoing profitability guaranteed by 2023 (according to BA): so no burden on the tax payer.

    Given many of the 12,000 waiting for Damocles will be his constituents, one would think this would have great appeal (heroic photo op) to BoJo.

  4. While I’m not a germophobe, I have always made it a priority to carry hand sanitising wipes, clorox wipes, alcohol pads, etc. I’ve not relied on IFE’s to keep myself entertained on any flight. I have enjoyed using them after I have wiped them and allowed them to fully air dry. Working in the field I work, knowing what I know about viruses, bacterial/fungal transfers and infections is one reason why I behave in this manner.

    Humans in general are dirty and they prove this by their behaviours. How many wash their hands after using the restroom, spit on the ground, give no pause to cover a sneeze/cough, leave your trash in the seatback pocket or anywhere other than a designated receptacle? Take a moment and look at the airplane while you’re deplaning, you’ll understand why flight crews deserve apologies. These behaviours are more common than you may choose to believe. Take a look around, you’ll realise the only protection one should expect comes from yourself. Do not ever expect anyone to have your best interest, but, be gracious when they do. In the medical field we use universal precautions and that is my approach in public places/spaces. If I see someone that chooses not to wear a face mask, well that’s their prerogative. I can’t control others, but, I can control myself.

    Being immunocompromised due to SLE; I take these precautions for myself and myself alone. I do not put my health in the hands of anyone other than myself. Nor do I impose the responsibility of my health on others, I am responsible for me. Focus less on what others are doing and start thinking about permanent changes in your own behaviours.

  5. Does modernizing the coach seats mean introducing the tortuous slimline seats? If so, I’m not sure that presenting this as any sort of progress is a prudent argument. For that matter, can any of the improvements you mention be reasonably construed as purely altruistic or solely being to the benefit of the customer? IAG’s “Show Me The F*****G Money” perspective doesn’t really lend itself to helping out other parties.

  6. Sadly BA is one of the worst airlines. Don’t remember when I had any kind of service in business class – often staff appeared only when they served food even during 12 hrs flight – and rarely good service in First class. Food quality is not good, no change in menu for years, cleaning standards below acceptable level. To be honest I don’t care what will happen with the airline and the slots.

  7. Wasn’t HM UK Government paid for the value of the LHR slots by shareholders, when BA and BAA were privatised? BA may not have paid for the slots initially, but their shareholders did eventually, as part of the flotation valuation.

    I definitely don’t agree with BA management’s decisions, but confiscating assets will affect employees and shareholders (and lots of employees are shareholders) – force BA to shrink by removing slots, and BA will claim they have to lay off even more staff to reflect the even smaller business.

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