Airline denies 60-hour week claims

With just 10 days to go before a strike grounds up to 28,000 of its passengers, Aer Lingus has denied cabin crew claims they are having to work 60-hour weeks and accused them of trying to double their paid leave.

The cabin crew, represented by Impact trade union, are due to stage a 24-hour stoppage on May 30.

According to the airline, 204 flights will have to be cancelled if the action goes ahead and there are 28,000 people already booked onto those flights. Upon notice of the action, management stopped taking bookings — but a further 12,000 passengers would have been expected to buy seats on the affected services before the day in question.

Impact has claimed cabin crew can work up to 60 hours in a seven-day period, resulting in shift patterns of six working days and one rest day, followed by six more working days. It wants a roster similar to that for pilots at the airline, of five work days followed by three rest days.

However, airline management claims the Impact allegations are “extremely misleading and bear no resemblance to actual Aer Lingus rosters”.

The company said it had analysed staff rosters for the past 12 months and found the average working week for cabin crew was 30 hours, and any incidence of staff working greater than 50 hours in a seven-day period was less than 0.5%.

Management also said “on no occasion” had crew had to work six days on, one day off and six days on again.

In relation to claims cabin crew were working up to 16-hour days, the airline said its analysis showed the longest planned working day in the roster was 13 hours, involving flying Dublin to San Francisco.

It said cabin crew already have between 26 and 31 days’ annual leave, yet their union was looking for the equivalent of an additional 32 paid days off.

However, a spokesman for Impact pointed out 97% of its members at Aer Lingus had voted for strike so there was clearly an issue. He said the roster figures produced by the company made it look as though there was no problem yet individual rosters bore out what the union was saying publicly.

Nonetheless, Aer Lingus management said the issues should be dealt with through the normal negotiating procedures making the threat of strike action “preemptive, unwarranted and an extremely unfair imposition on the travelling public, tourism industry, exporters and business travellers”.

“It’s extremely damaging for customers and for the airline to live under this constant threat of strike,” said the airline’s director of communications, Declan Kearney.

“We are doing everything we can to minimise the impact on our customers, but we call on Impact to stop this practice of constantly threatening strike action as a part of their negotiating position. It is unfair to the airline, reputationally and commercially, and it is most unfair to the public who deserve to be able to catch their flights on the day and time of their choosing.”

Yet again, customers are left grounded

Over the last three days, thousands of anxious holidaymakers have been desperately logging onto the Aer Lingus website, trying in vain to get some reassurances that long-awaited trips are not in jeopardy due to strikes.

Many will be asking themselves why they took the risk of booking with the airline. After all, there is the threat of disruption by industrial action at Aer Lingus almost annually, but twice so far this year, often at a time when thousands of passengers will potentially be impacted.

As Aer Lingus chief executive Christoph Müller put it in an message to staff yesterday: “Unfortunately, over a five-year period no other Irish company has conducted so many ballots, issued so many warnings of industrial action, or had so many booking disruptions because of labour disputes played out in public that landed us all back in the care of the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court.”

For all the warnings of strike, it rarely materialises — one of the last industrial action episodes at Aer Lingus was in 2011 when cabin crew and management were at odds — as now — over rosters and hours. Yet all it takes is the “threat” of action for the airline to suffer reputational damage, the loss of custom, and, inevitably, a loss of revenue. Management has accused unions of using the threat as a part of their armoury in every industrial relations negotiation.

Mr Müller said in yesterday’s message: “(The threat of action) harms our customers and damages our business and threatens the security of our employment. It also creates an appalling impression of Aer Lingus and even creates a negative impression of Ireland for the many thousands of tourists who had planned to visit us for the June bank holiday weekend. They must now change their travel plans. Hopefully, only some will choose to abandon using Aer Lingus services permanently but certainly none will be encouraged by this unhappy experience.”

When it comes to booking a holiday, there are a number of criteria to consider before making a choice. The fact that Aer Lingus had a service to the destination used to be a significant plus-point. Now, in the back of some minds, the thought must linger: “Am I taking a double risk by booking Aer Lingus and flying through airspace manned by French air-traffic controllers?”

So who is to blame for making travel with Aer Lingus such a lottery?

When industrial action took place in 2011, Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary forecast at the time that Aer Lingus “would be destroyed” if it “gave in” to unions in the rostering dispute.

That was perhaps an easy utterance from the head of an airline where unions hold no sway. But the reality is that unions have always been a powerful force in the fortunes of Aer Lingus. They have, as is their job, defended their members’ pay, conditions, and entitlements to the hilt.

It must be borne in mind they and their members have made concessions to the benefit of the company, albeit with, not insignificant, prodding from third-party mediators in a number of cases.

There is no doubt the Aer Lingus of today is a leaner, more efficient operation. Gone are the days when baggage handlers were allegedly earning up to €110,000 or staff paid overtime for doing no work. Without the sacrifices of its staff, Aer Lingus would have struggled to fly out the other side of a global recession which proved fatal for a number of other airlines.

However, getting to this point has taken a significant toll on the management/worker relationship, a marriage now most frequently described as toxic.

The estrangement has only been made more bitter by the ongoing dispute over how to address the €700m deficit in the pension scheme covering both Aer Lingus and DAA employees.

Steps are being taken to try, in some way, to heal the rift.

A new internal dispute resolution process has been established — ironically a meeting to discuss it was planned for May 30, the day of the 24-hour strike by cabin crew.

For now though, intending passengers must wait in hope for some form of intervention that will mean they will be able to fly out as scheduled for their holiday or business trips.

Sadly, the mood music suggests no such intervention will be successful.

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