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BA stands its ground despite staffing crisis

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Themost senior HR professional at British Airways (BA) has responded to claimsthat failings in people policies are at the heart of the airline giant’scurrent woes.NeilRobertson, director for people at BA, told Personnel Today that the past threeyears “have been the most difficult in our history”, and that thestructural changes undertaken by the business were unavoidable.”Changehas been constant, which has been tough on our people, but the important thingis that BA has survived,” he said. “We are now trying to drive thatchange in an involving way, with an increase in face-to-face communications andmore people management.”Lastweek, BA launched a review of management failures that led to chaos at Heathrowairport over the Bank Holiday, when 70 flights were cancelled in two days –reportedly costing the airline up to £10m.Thecompany, which has cut 13,000 jobs since the September 11 terror attacks,admitted the problems were down to staff shortages, suggesting the main causewas a large number of resignations, and security vetting procedures delayingreplacements.However,HR experts said the situation suggested more deep-seated problems with peoplepolicies at BA, and questioned the company’s relationship with the unions inparticular.Robertsonsaid the company is committed to ensuring the industrial relations climatemoves forward, focusing on a change programme that is sponsored by both theboard of directors and the unions. He admitted, however, that progress would bedifficult.”Changeis not going to be easy, and issues will come up. We are focused oncommunication and the role of managers and union reps,” he said.Expertshave also questioned BA’s new absence policy, which will see employees given a£1,000 lump sum as long as they take less than 17 sick days over two years. However,Robertson claims the move will improve internal efficiency. “We have beentalking about absence for several months and have reached a commonposition,” he said. “Instead of having around 20 agreements acrossthe company, we have one policy.”Robertsonadmitted there are still many people challenges to overcome.”Revenueisn’t going to make a recovery anytime soon, cost performance remains a keychallenge and we [HR] are directly involved in that,” he said.Rod Eddington,chief executive of BA, will talk about BA’s current challenges at the nextPersonnel Today HR Directors Club event on 22 September. GO TO www.hrdirectorsclub.comFeedback from the professionPaul Kearns – consultant – PWL “BAneeds to look at its relationship with the unions, its employees and itscustomers. All three seem unhappy. What people policies does it have? It can’teven do basic manpower planning, and it seems people strategy is not part ofits business plan. It needs to sort out its relationship with the unions, as ithad trouble bringing in simple new policies, such as timecards.”Bruce Warman– consultant – ex-HR director at Vauxhall”Thesingle biggest issue that BA must address is absenteeism. It is a deep-seated,cultural issue. People tend to go off sick during threats of strike action. Inthe motor industry, we suspended sick pay when staff were being balloted on strike action. At BA,the average absence [period] is 17 days. You can’t run an organisation likethat. Paying individual bonuses for good attendance is not the way. A betterway is group bonuses – so peer pressure would kick in.”BA timeline 2001-2004September2001 US terror attacks lead to slump in air travel and the loss of 7,000 jobs October2001 6,000 employees receive pay cutsFebruary2002 Plans to simplify booking systems announcedMay2002 BA announces losses of £200m. Its ‘Future Size and Shape’ strategy isoutlined, designed to cut £650m of costsAugust2002 Six months in, BA announces improved financesJanuary2003 New pay deal for pilots negotiatedJuly2003 BA director publicly implies that pilots are skiversJuly2003 Wildcat strike by check-in staff over new Automated Time Recording (ATR)systemNovember2003 Pensions shortfall of £133m a year revealedDecember2003 5,000 jobs at risk as part of cuts planned for 2004January2004 BA air crew challenges discrimination laws relating to retirement age of 55February2004 Unions warn that further staff cuts should not be compulsory redundanciesMay2004 Annual results reveal that the Future Shape and Size programme – with theloss of 13,000 jobs – has saved £850mJuly2004 Twelve former female BAstaff file sex discrimination claimAugust2004 Airport chaos as staff shortages leadto scores of flights being cancelled. Strike action by baggage handlers andcheck-in staff narrowly averted after unions agree new three-year pay deal thatincreases salaries in exchange for stricter absence policy.BAgives 17,500 staff two free flight tickets as a ‘thank-you’ for working duringthe month – at a cost of £4mFurther upheaval ahead for airlinesThereis likely to be further upheaval for staff at BA and other airlines in thefuture as carriers continue looking to cut costs, experts predict.Despiteunion claims that BA’s job-cutting programme contributed to the recentproblems, some within the industry believe that labour costs at BA are stillbetween £100m and £200m too high.ChrisTarry, an independent aviation analyst, said: “It is not just about scale,but also about the way people work.”Airlineshave to begin to remove customs and practices that have been in place for anumber of years. The major challenge for them is bringing people along withthose changes,” he said. Comments are closed. 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