Airline Weekly

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Potential British Airways Strike Adds to European Airlines’ Struggles This Summer

Edward Russell
June 23rd, 2022 at 1:56 PM EDT

Photo credit:  British Airways / Stuart Bailey

Two unions representing British Airways ground staff at London’s Heathrow airport have voted to strike over a pandemic pay dispute in what could be the latest in a series of travel disruptions the UK capital faces.

Ground staff, including check-in workers, represented by the GMB and Unite unions approved a strike on June 23. More than 90 percent of both unions’ members voted in favor of the industrial action. Both unions cited British Airways’ failure to end a temporary 10 percent pay cut that was implemented early in the pandemic to help conserve cash for the strike vote.

British Airways has “insulted this workforce, slashing pay by 10 percent only to restore it to managers but not to our members. [The airline] is treating its loyal workforce as second class citizens and they will not put up with it a moment longer,” Unite National Officer for Aviation Oliver Richardson said in a statement.

An airline spokesperson said British Airways was “extremely disappointed” with the vote to strike.

British Airways’ dispute with ground staff is only the latest wrinkle in what is already a difficult summer for both European airlines and travelers. Flight attendants, pilots, and certain other staff at Europe’s largest airline, Ryanair, plan to strike in Belgium, France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain for 24 hours on June 25. And EasyJet has repeatedly been forced to cancel flights due to its own staffing issues. Lufthansa has cut schedules at its Frankfurt and Munich hubs, and its budget arm Eurowings cancelled flights in Germany through July due to airport staffing shortages in the country.

And on the airport side, images of thousands of unclaimed bags at Heathrow have circulated on social media, and the airport has asked airlines to temporarily reduce the number of flights they operate in order to mitgate delays. Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport has reduced the number of flights it is allowing through the end of August after multiple days of overcrowded terminals and cancelled flights. And Brussels Airport was closed on June 20 due to national strikes.

“We are part of a network, and we are experiencing more and more problems in German airports or [in] Amsterdam,” Iberia CEO Javier Sánchez-Prieto said of the operational situation in Europe earlier in June. “We don’t see those problems in the Spanish airports, or in Madrid … [But] we are not operating in an isolated environment.”

British Airways is already embroiled in the travel issues across Europe. In May, Luis Gallego, CEO of parent company International Airlines Group (IAG), said the carrier would reduce its schedule at Heathrow by 10 percent through October — or about 60 daily departures — due to lack of security and immigration staff on the part of the airport’s operator. Gallego went on to say that staffing was based on a “unrealistically low passenger volume forecast” by the airport.

On June 23, the operator of Heathrow raised its passenger outlook for the year to 54.4 million passengers, and said it was working with airlines and ground handlers over staffing. However, based on IAG’s estimates, schedules suggest that the airport could see upwards of 70 million passengers in 2022.

“You cannot scale up overnight,” Airports Council International (ACI) Europe spokesperson Virginia Lee said. It can take up to six months to hire and credential an airport worker in many European countries that, she pointed out, means airports needed to have hired for current demand in December and January — or in the middle of the Omicron surge when many countries were reimposing travel restrictions and airlines were cutting flights.

The travel disruptions have yet to have a meaningful impact on European airlines’ financials. Carriers have cut their capacity outlooks but, with pent-up demand for travel seemingly palpable, the cuts have mostly translated to higher fares that have offset the lost revenue — and much of the run up in oil prices due to the war in Ukraine. EasyJet, which was the last to update its guidance for the current quarter on June 20, said booking momentum was strong and numbers were on par with 2019 even as it reduced its capacity outlook for the summer.

As for British Airways, GMB and Unite said they will give the airline a “short window” to reinstate pre-pandemic pay levels before their members go on strike. The airline spokesperson said British Airways is “fully committed to work together to find a solution.”

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