British Airways warned its patience with unions representing striking cabin crew had been “exhausted”, at an annual meeting that saw chief executive Willie Walsh booed and heckled by shareholders and staff.
It was the first time Walsh had to confront his cabin crew employees publicly since they began voting for a series of stoppages late last year. He responded to the barrage of attacks by saying he made no apologies for telling cabin crew the facts they may not wish to hear as the airline battles for survival.
He spoke of his frustration at being depicted as either Hitler or the devil – as crew accused the management of “bullying”, creating a culture of “fear and loathing” and “damaging the BA brand”.
During the three-hour showdown, investors applauded Walsh’s view that after a recession in which global airline revenues dived by $80bn, BA must pursue “permanent structural change”.
Although BA has had to cope with losses from the strike estimated at £150m and the associated bad publicity, it is achieving its goal of breaking the union stranglehold.
Walsh said: “BA is not in dispute with our staff, we are in dispute with a trade union representing a small number of staff.”
BA chairman Martin Broughton said the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association (BASSA) had “played on the fear factor, distorting management proposals and spreading alarm” about the airline’s plans.
He signalled that the airline would not back down from the stand-off, saying: “The board’s patience with BASSA has now been exhausted. We will win the right to manage.”
Hundreds of BA cabin crew walked out in March in protest over pay and a reduction in the number of crew used on each flight. Employees have since been angered by the group’s decision to punish striking staff by removing their discounts on flying with BA.
The carrier’s latest offer would see pay increased from 2011 and travel perks restored, but with priority based on length of service removed for anyone who joined in the walkouts.
However strikes remain on the agenda. Crew are now voting in a fresh ballot that could lead to further strikes in late summer, depending on the results, due on July 20.