Our Q & A with BA’s Neil Robertson in full

British
Airways’ director for people Neil Robertson answers questions on the dispute
with staff at Heathrow Airport

How
is the HR team at BA involved in this dispute?

British
Airways has a dedicated HR team, including industrial relations specialists,
working alongside our line management and customer service teams based at
Heathrow.

With
their support we have been working closely with the trade unions for the past
12 months to seek a resolution to the issue of Automated Time Recording (ATR).

The
HR team has worked closely with their line management colleagues in keeping
employees fully informed of developments.

Do
you see the dispute as a failure of good HR practices?

In
the past few years the industry has faced nimaginable challenges, making this
the most testing time in aviation history. There have been events that we could
not have foreseen – such as September 11, the SARS outbreak and the war in
Iraq  – and there has been continued
economic weakness, as well as competition from the no-frills carriers. We have
just reported one of our worst ever pre-tax losses for the first quarter of the
year, and the lowest revenue for nine years. Although cost efficiencies partly
offset the weak revenue.  

These
events would be seen as a challenge for any organisation. To survive BA and its
employees have had to undergo an enormous amount of change. This change is
inevitable and the need for change will continue. The contribution of our
employees remains critical to BA’s recovery, and our overall approach and our
record as a good employer recognise this.

Throughout
this challenging period the company has worked closely with its employees and
unions to enable the company to deliver on changes as part of the airline’s
‘Future, Size and Shape’ programme, which is aimed at modernising our business.
HR has had a key part to play in the effective delivery of all this change.

Modernising
the way we work also includes recognising that the demands on our employees’
lives are changing and we have sought to respond to that through HR policy and
practice.  

For
example, our intranet system can be accessed by our employees from their homes,
allowing them to keep in touch with the business at a time that suits them. And
with the support and the input of the trade unions, after the events of
September 11, we introduced a programme called the ‘Business Response Scheme’.
This programme includes a number of flexible working options to suit both
employees and the business, including periods of unpaid leave and temporary
part-time working.

Do
you believe there is a problem of ‘time theft’ by employees?

This
is not about individual ‘time theft’. 
It is simply that, like any business employing large numbers of people –
often working complex shifts – we need to accurately record and manage who is
at work.

The
airline has a well-established, but outdated ‘paper and pen’ system of
recording the attendance of our staff. The move to an electronic system is
about modernising the way we run our business.

ATR
will record data we capture already and will help us to ensure compliance with
health and safety.

Is
there enough consultation/communication between BA management and staff and
will recent events prompt a change in consultation/communication at BA?

We
recognise that we can always do things better and we are actively looking at
what the airline can do to restore trust between management and staff as well
as how we can improve staff communications in light of recent events.

The
airline has well established and jointly agreed arrangements for discussing
issues with our employees through staff representatives which include regular
forums at all levels.

These
forums and other ad hoc meetings have been used to discuss the relevant issues
with the trade unions.

Employee
communications are also an important part of the way we manage our people.

The
airline has been working closely with the unions for 12 months to try to reach
a resolution on this issue.

Throughout
this period we have been continually communicating with our staff about what
ATR is and is not about and to seek to reassure them that there is nothing to
worry about. We have reassured staff that it will not mean sending them home
during quiet periods or bringing in ‘annualised hours’ by stealth.

We
have used a variety of means to communicate with our employees, including
face-to-face briefings from February to July – where we discussed the new
system – and the broader ‘Future Size and Shape’ programme, along with letters
and question and answer documents, articles in in-house publications, etc.

We
recognise our customer service agents are the face of our organisation and that
it is important that they feel valued to do what they do best – serving our
customers.

We
now want to concentrate on the future. We are pleased that the three trade
unions have agreed to continue discussing with us other cost efficiencies in
our business recovery plan in a new separate joint working party, and we want
to continue to work closely with the unions and our people as we move forward.

Why
was the new electronic system introduced at the busiest time of year?

Given
the scale of challenges faced by the airline we are managing change on an
on-going basis. This is one element of the changes. But there was never going
to be a good time to do this, you need only look at what has been happening to
other airlines to see why we cannot put off this kind of change.  We have been talking to our unions about
this for more than12 months and indeed have delayed the introduction to allow
these discussions to continue.

Was
consultation non-existent?

No,
we have endeavoured to work closely with the trade unions to seek a resolution
to this issue for more than a year. The airline has well established
arrangements for consulting with the unions.  

It
is important that we press ahead with modernising the business. We operate in a
very competitive environment and we simply can’t afford not to progress.

How
has ATR been received in other parts of the business?

Some
20,000 British Airways staff currently use swipe cards each day, and more than
2,000 of our staff at Heathrow already use ATR and have been doing so for
nearly three years – it is an integral part of the way they operate.

Like
any business employing large numbers of people, often working complex shifts,
we need to accurately record and manage who is at work.  It’s about modernising the way we work,
using modern tools to enable staff to do their jobs more easily.

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