A week before the unprecedented 16-day strike by some British Airways cabin crew based at Heathrow, the Unite union is bidding to block a plan to fly passengers in aircraft grounded by the Middle East airspace row.
BA plans to draft in nine Airbus A320 and A321 jets from Qatar Airways to cover for the Mixed Fleet strike, which is planned for 1-16 July. The Gulf carrier has plenty of spare aircraft, because its short-haul routes to Abu Dhabi, Dubai and other destinations have been grounded as part of a geo-political row.
During previous bouts of industrial action, British Airways has paid other airlines, including Titan and Thomson, to cover for strike-hit flights. The practice is known as wet-leasing, with pilots and crew bought in along with the planes.
To use jets from outside Europe to cover, BA is required to “obtain prior approval for the operation from the competent licensing authority”, in this case the Civil Aviation Authority.
The application has been made on the grounds of “exceptional needs … to enable British Airways to continue passenger operations in light of planned operational disruption by its Mixed Fleet cabin crew.”
But Oliver Richardson, National Officer Civil Air Transport for the Unite union, has written to the CAA saying: “No evidence has been presented to justify that either there are exceptional circumstances or that there are a lack of adequate aircraft on the community market.
“The cited ‘operational’ disruption is related to industrial action by a particular proportion of Cabin Crew which does not affect the number of aircraft that BA has at its disposal, nor the number of pilots.”
The union also claims that “Qatar Flight Duty Time limitations and Rest requirements are inferior to the UK.”
Qatar Airways has a financial interest in maintaining the operation at Heathrow, because it owns one-fifth of BA’s parent company, IAG.
Mr Richardson said: “Qatar could stand to be accused of using unfair support to provide such resources and labour in order to break legally compliant industrial action.”
The union believes that flying in nine empty aircraft more than 3,200 miles from Doha will lead to “breaches in emissions regulations”.
The strike is the latest episode in an increasingly bitter pay dispute involving BA’s Mixed Fleet cabin crew at Heathrow. It has now broadened to include what the Unite union claims are unfair sanctions applied to 1,400 strikers after previous stoppages.
Mixed Fleet crew comprise about 35 per cent of the airline’s total cabin crew, and cover more than 60 routes from Heathrow — about one third of the total.
But BA passengers with bookings to or from Heathrow in the first half of July still do not know if their flights will be affected. A week after the strike was called, the airline’s contingency plans have not been finalised.
A spokesperson for British Airways said: “Our priority is to fly all our customers to their destinations. We are looking at a range of options and are speaking with a number of airlines. We will publish our contingency plans in the coming days for customers who have bookings on the days of threatened industrial action.”