British Airways strike is latest in wave across Europe airlines

The seven-day British Airways strike slated for late March is the latest in a wave of strikes to sweep across France, Italy, Germany, and Greece as socialist entitlement collides with market realities.

Toby Melville/Reuters
British Airways aircraft are parked at Heathrow Airport in west London February 5.

The seven-day British Airways strike announced today is only the latest in a wave in a wave to sweep across Europe’s airline industry.

Italy’s Alitalia Airlines canceled about 150 flights out of Rome today as labor unions began a four-hour strike. Additional strikes last month in Germany, France, and Greece show the region’s airlines unions to be under increasing pressure from the financial crisis, low-budget carriers such as RyanAir, and the rising costs of worker benefits.

"The labor instability in the European airline industry demonstrates an expected collision of socialist policies promoting entitlement and an industry forced to adapt to market forces," says William Swelbar of MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation, where he is affiliated with the Global Airline Industry.

Europe’s airline unions are “coming to grips with market forces that could make any number of flag carriers irrelevant in tomorrow’s global airline industry,” adds Swelbar.

BA announced Friday that its strike days are March 20 to 22 and March 27 to 30. (More information on what the strike means for you on the British Airways website.)

Why British Airways staffers are striking

Unite – the union representing 30,000 cabin crew at the airline – is unhappy about cuts in staffing and pay, including a pay freeze in 2010, a switch to part-time work for 3,000 staff, and a reduction in cabin crew sizes from 15 to 14 on long-haul flights from Heathrow airport.

But the strike isn’t definite. Reports say that Len McCluskey, the assistant secretary general of Unite, said a new offer made by BA on Thursday would be put to a vote by workers and the strike action would be called off if they approved.

Analysts don’t see an easy way out for either side.

“It amounts to the two parties in the O.K. Corral right around noontime,” says Robert W. Mann, Jr., an airline industry analyst and former airline executive for PanAm and TWA.

Other strikes around Europe

Similar fights are brewing around Europe.

In Germany, on Feb. 22, pilots at Lufthansa walked out for a day and then called off their strike, though not soon enough to prevent disruption in the German carrier and the cancellation of hundreds of flights. The Cockpit Association union, which represents about 4,500 pilots, and the airline’s management agreed to return to the bargaining table to discuss pilots’ concerns that the carrier may seek to employ lower-paid pilots from foreign subsidiaries.

In France the next day, air-traffic controllers began a five-day strike that led to massive flight cancellations. The French controllers are protesting European Union plans to integrate air traffic control systems under an initiative called the Single European Sky.

And the day after that, air traffic controllers in Greece began a 24-hour strike to protest planned government budget cuts.

Low-cost carriers are cannibalizing the industry while a pronounced recession is reducing base traffic, says Mr. Mann, the analyst.

“It’s a double-whammy,” he says.

High-stakes bargaining

British Airways CEO Willie Walsh is famous for high-stakes bargaining and understands the dynamics from both sides of the table because he was once head of a BA pilots union, says Mann.

“But of course it all results in collateral damage wherein customers are clearly booking away from British Airways,” he says.

It’s a story that has already played out in America in the names Pan Am, TWA, and Eastern Airlines.

And it’s a story that will continue to play out across Europe, says Mann, with Italy’s Alitalia Airlines possibly striking next.

“You’ll see it in any of these markets where the industry is restructuring from an archaic approach to the business.”

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