UK Lawmakers Call British Airways Staff Policy ‘A National Disgrace’

Credit: British Airways

LONDON—An influential committee of UK parliamentarians has described British Airways’ (BA) restructuring plans for staff during the coronavirus pandemic as “a national disgrace.”

The Transport Select Committee of the legislature’s lower chamber used unusually strong language in its report. Although the committee has no power, its comments can help set the tone on aviation matters.

The committee members also criticized the government for being tardy and vague with its plans to restart the aviation industry in the aftermath of the pandemic.

In its report, “The Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic on the Aviation Sector,” issued June 13, the bipartisan committee stated: “The loss of some jobs in the aviation sector may sadly be inevitable. But such fundamental decisions about people’s livelihoods should not be made prematurely. We examined in detail British Airways’ plans to consult on up to 12,000 redundancies and downgrade the terms and conditions of approximately 35,000 employees.” 

The report further said: “Our view is that the current consultation on staffing changes is a calculated attempt to take advantage of the pandemic to cut jobs and weaken the terms and conditions of its remaining employees. The behavior of British Airways and its parent company [International Airlines Group (IAG)] toward its employees is a national disgrace. It falls well below the standards we would expect from any employer, especially in light of the scale of taxpayer subsidy, at this time of national crisis.”

Despite the comments being addressed to IAG as well as BA, an IAG spokeswoman referred all inquiries to BA. 

In a written statement, BA said its actions were being driven by the deepest crisis ever faced by the airline industry. The airline took a swipe at the committee’s chairman, Huw Merriman.

“We find ourselves in the deepest crisis ever faced by the airline industry. A crisis not of our making but one which we must address. We will do everything in our power to ensure that British Airways can survive and sustain the maximum number of jobs consistent with the new reality of a changed airline industry in a severely weakened global economy,” BA said. 

“Mr. Merriman made clear several weeks ago that the Transport Select Committee’s report would be ‘fueled by the kind and impassioned messages’ he received, rather than the facts,” the carrier said. “The facts are clear. The government has no plans to help the sector restart and recover, as evidenced by the introduction of the 14-day quarantine regulation.”

Additionally, over the weekend, BA CEO Alex Cruz said in a newspaper article the airline was “in a fight to survive. We know we will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis as a much smaller airline.” Cruz said BA was attempting to preserve as many jobs as possible.

The committee’s report concurred with BA’s concerns over the introduction of a blanket 14-day quarantine for travelers to the UK from other countries: 

“This will further damage both the recovery of the sector and the wider economy,” the airline said. “We are not persuaded this is the right policy option at this time compared to the alternatives. We support a more targeted and nuanced border control policy that would allow people traveling from countries where the infection rate of COVID-19 is relatively low to enter the UK on a less restrictive basis. Should the conditions allow in late June, we strongly urge the government to introduce a more flexible and risk-based approach to border control.”

The government has come under strong pressure from the airline and tourism industries to relax the widely criticized quarantine period and has said it will review the policy before the end of June.

The committee added that while the UK’s Department for Transport has set up an Aviation Restart, Recovery, and Engagement Unit and a strategy is being devised to help the sector recover, “We are concerned at the lack of detail and pace of action.” The panel said plans should have been much more advanced, “given we are already some four months into the crisis.”

Alan Dron

Based in London, Alan is Europe & Middle East correspondent at Air Transport World.