BA stands its ground despite staffing crisis

most senior HR professional at British Airways (BA) has responded to claims
that failings in people policies are at the heart of the airline giant’s
current woes.

Robertson, director for people at BA, told Personnel Today that the past three
years "have been the most difficult in our history", and that the
structural changes undertaken by the business were unavoidable.

has been constant, which has been tough on our people, but the important thing
is that BA has survived," he said. "We are now trying to drive that
change in an involving way, with an increase in face-to-face communications and
more people management."

week, BA launched a review of management failures that led to chaos at Heathrow
airport over the Bank Holiday, when 70 flights were cancelled in two days –
reportedly costing the airline up to £10m.

company, which has cut 13,000 jobs since the September 11 terror attacks,
admitted the problems were down to staff shortages, suggesting the main cause
was a large number of resignations, and security vetting procedures delaying

HR experts said the situation suggested more deep-seated problems with people
policies at BA, and questioned the company’s relationship with the unions in

said the company is committed to ensuring the industrial relations climate
moves forward, focusing on a change programme that is sponsored by both the
board of directors and the unions. He admitted, however, that progress would be

is not going to be easy, and issues will come up. We are focused on
communication and the role of managers and union reps," he said.

have also questioned BA’s new absence policy, which will see employees given a
£1,000 lump sum as long as they take less than 17 sick days over two years.

Robertson claims the move will improve internal efficiency. "We have been
talking about absence for several months and have reached a common
position," he said. "Instead of having around 20 agreements across
the company, we have one policy."

admitted there are still many people challenges to overcome.

isn’t going to make a recovery anytime soon, cost performance remains a key
challenge and we [HR] are directly involved in that," he said.

Rod Eddington,
chief executive of BA, will talk about BA’s current challenges at the next
Personnel Today HR Directors Club event on 22 September.

Feedback from the profession

Paul Kearns – consultant – PWL

needs to look at its relationship with the unions, its employees and its
customers. All three seem unhappy. What people policies does it have? It can’t
even do basic manpower planning, and it seems people strategy is not part of
its business plan. It needs to sort out its relationship with the unions, as it
had trouble bringing in simple new policies, such as timecards."

Bruce Warman
– consultant – ex-HR director at Vauxhall

single biggest issue that BA must address is absenteeism. It is a deep-seated,
cultural issue. People tend to go off sick during threats of strike action. In
the motor industry, we suspended sick pay when staff were being balloted on strike action. At BA,
the average absence [period] is 17 days. You can’t run an organisation like
that. Paying individual bonuses for good attendance is not the way. A better
way is group bonuses – so peer pressure would kick in."

BA timeline 2001-2004

2001 US terror attacks lead to slump in air travel and the loss of 7,000 jobs

2001 6,000 employees receive pay cuts

2002 Plans to simplify booking systems announced

2002 BA announces losses of £200m. Its ‘Future Size and Shape’ strategy is
outlined, designed to cut £650m of costs

2002 Six months in, BA announces improved finances

2003 New pay deal for pilots negotiated

2003 BA director publicly implies that pilots are skivers

2003 Wildcat strike by check-in staff over new Automated Time Recording (ATR)

2003 Pensions shortfall of £133m a year revealed

2003 5,000 jobs at risk as part of cuts planned for 2004

2004 BA air crew challenges discrimination laws relating to retirement age of 55

2004 Unions warn that further staff cuts should not be compulsory redundancies

2004 Annual results reveal that the Future Shape and Size programme – with the
loss of 13,000 jobs – has saved £850m

2004 Twelve former female BA
staff file sex discrimination claim

2004 Airport chaos as staff shortages lead
to scores of flights being cancelled. Strike action by baggage handlers and
check-in staff narrowly averted after unions agree new three-year pay deal that
increases salaries in exchange for stricter absence policy.

gives 17,500 staff two free flight tickets as a ‘thank-you’ for working during
the month – at a cost of £4m

Further upheaval ahead for airlines

is likely to be further upheaval for staff at BA and other airlines in the
future as carriers continue looking to cut costs, experts predict.

union claims that BA’s job-cutting programme contributed to the recent
problems, some within the industry believe that labour costs at BA are still
between £100m and £200m too high.

Tarry, an independent aviation analyst, said: "It is not just about scale,
but also about the way people work.

have to begin to remove customs and practices that have been in place for a
number of years. The major challenge for them is bringing people along with
those changes," he said.

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