British Airways threatens to fire all 4,300 pilots

LONDON: British Airways raised the stakes in talks with unions over a controversial 12,000 job-cut proposal and started a legal process to block the UK’s self-isolation requirement for arrivals, an order that would further undermine an industry devastated by the coronavirus crisis.

The carrier warned its pilots union that it would dismiss all of its 4,300 pilots and rehire them on individual contracts unless an agreement can be reached on new employment terms, the Balpa union said on Saturday.

British Airways is negotiating a planned reduction of 1,130 roles represented by Balpa, and has sought to eliminate an additional 125 positions, the union said.

“This has seriously undermined our talks, which now hang by a thread,” Brian Strutton, the general secretary of the union, said in an email.

“It calls into question whether British Airways is even capable of conducting industrial relations properly and whether anything they say can be trusted.”

The standoff with labour is escalating as new quarantine rules are set to kick in on Monday.

Concerned that the 14-day self-isolation requirement would block its plans to restart services in July, British Airways’ parent IAG SA wrote to the Home Office to start a process to block the measure, which could lead to a lawsuit, according to a copy of the letter seen by Bloomberg News.

The letter, also signed by discount carriers Ryanair Holdings Plc and EasyJet Plc, pointed to how the rules would apply to travellers from countries with lower infection rates than the UK, and disproportionately affect those from England than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

More Stringent

The quarantine for travellers is also more stringent than the one for those who test positive for the virus, according to the letter. The airlines also argued that the UK is imposing the self-isolation on arrivals from countries that have a lower infection rate than the UK.

“In our view, the government has failed to identify a valid justification for the blanket nature of the regulations, more especially given the extremely severe nature of the self-isolation provisions that apply,” according to the letter.

The Home Office declined to comment on the potential legal action late Saturday. On Friday, James Slack, a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, told reporters the government wants to work with the industry as the country moves through the pandemic.

The quarantine is being introduced as carriers try to salvage the normally busy summer season. IAG Chief Executive Officer Willie Walsh last week wrote to members of the parliament that the quarantine measures would torpedo British Airways’ plans to resume about 40% of its scheduled flights in July, and would force the carrier to continue burning £20 million (US$25 million) a day. IAG shares have lost almost half their value this year.

If British Airways and the airlines push ahead with a legal challenge, a court proceeding known as a judicial review will be held in London’s High Court.

The transport sector isn’t a stranger to a judicial review. Earlier this year, the procedure was used to force the government to take full account of climate change agreements over its plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

The procedure allows members of the public and corporations to hold the government to account over policy decisions.

The process is designed to weigh the lawfulness of how a government decision has been reached, rather than whether the decision is right or wrong.

Public bodies that lose judicial review cases can make the same decision again as long as they do so using the right procedures.

Like airlines worldwide, IAG is slashing costs to contend with a historic drop in travel.

Carriers in Europe have signalled plans to eliminate more than 50,000 positions since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, including 10,000 on Wednesday at Germany’s Deutsche Lufthansa AG.

In an email, British Airways said the carrier is “acting now to protect as many jobs possible,” adding that “the airline industry is facing the deepest structural change in its history, as well as facing a severely weakened global economy”.