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The corridors of power...

The recent footage of British Airways passengers cooling their heels at Heathrow brought back a few memories.

The last time BA experienced something similar was in 1997, when members of BA’s cabin crew union called in ‘sick’ en masse, causing massive disruption.

They were angry that BA was trying to sharpen up working practices.

Their anger was made worse by the fact that Bob Ayling, BA’s chief executive, was demanding sacrifices from staff with one hand, while spending £60m on ghastly multicoloured tailfins with the other. And that from a man who is colour-blind.

Ayling threatened to sack any of BA’s 8,500 cabin crew who supported calls for a three-day strike, prompting the ‘sick’ ruse. The disruption cost BA £125m.

The cabin crew dispute created some dreadful headlines for BA and contributed to Ayling’s subsequent departure. And yet, is it time we gave him his due? For all his confrontational approach, not even Ayling induced chaos on the scale seen recently at Heathrow.

Could it be that the current BA management, led by the outwardly amiable Rod Eddington, has been too preoccupied with September 11 and Sars to notice what was happening on the employee relations front?

As a state company brought into the private sector, BA presents all kinds of headaches for managers seeking to squeeze costs. The challenge is made worse since any unhappiness among staff tends to get thrown back at the customer. Yet the strike action is far more damaging to BA than the cost of carrying old working practices.

It is a tricky tightrope to walk. Ayling, somehow, carried it off, while his successor is not looking quite so sure-footed.

  • Jon Ashworth, business features editor at The Times.

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