Opinion: BA cannot distance itself from suppliers

August has not been a good month for travellers. Leaving aside the air crash in Greece, the media have been full of dire stories about those 'flying the flag' as British Airways flights were cancelled due to industrial action. BA executives may bleat as much as they like about 'wildcat' strikes, but such inflammatory language only exacerbates what is already a big problem for the airline.

The only real surprise about the latest spat between the bosses and workers at Heathrow is that the baggage handlers returned to work before the catering staff at Gate Gourmet had been reinstated. But there was a disappointing lack of real analysis of the dispute by most of the media. The TV news almost exclusively reported on the 'poor passengers' - never mind the workers out of a job due to dreadful management. This is unsurprising because, incredibly, even BBC TV has no dedicated industrial reporter, despite the fact that more than five million of us belong to trade unions.

BA can't wash its hands of the dispute just because its catering is contracted out - the only reason for outsourcing was to save money, and hiring a US company with a questionable industrial relations history was asking for trouble.

It is difficult to know how the airline will get out of this mess. It wants Gate Gourmet to reinstate sacked staff, but the caterer knows the chances of BA renewing its contract are nil - so why bother? The first thing BA should do is to recognise that good industrial relations is good PR - all companies need to realise that fact.

Does anyone at BA seriously think that negative stories about chairman Martin Broughton 'scoffing lobster' while passengers are stranded and workers sacked promotes a positive image? Even worse were reports in some newspapers alleging that customers were misled by BA staff about the validity of their tickets for use on other carriers.

Perhaps BA should try an experiment, with a few job swaps from the PR department to industrial relations. I bet there would be an immediate change of attitude towards the workers. Any BA press officer having to deal with the hostile media every August would ensure strikes never happen again. They would quickly learn that it's normally bad management that leads to strikes, not greedy staff.

It's a good job that the British Airports Authority has a little more sense. In building Terminal 5, it has specially employed an ex-Amicus official to help prevent strikes. Ironically, it is building the terminal for BA.

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