British Airways bosses faced a storm of questions today over their handling of the airline’s bitter cabin crew dispute.
At a turbulent, three-hour annual meeting of the airline in London, angry cabin crew took the opportunity to question chief executive Willie Walsh and chairman Martin Broughton.
While some shareholders voiced strong support for the cabin crew others expressed their disgust at the series of strikes which has cost the airline around £150m (€179.4m).
Mr Walsh maintained that BA’s latest offer, on which cabin crew are being balloted, is fair and is a way to end the dispute.
While some shareholders described BA management as “bullying and authoritarian”, Mr Walsh maintained that cabin crew costs have to be cut, and that change is necessary and the best thing for the airline.
With shareholders alternatively jeering or cheering, Mr Walsh said he had been depicted as “Hitler or the devil”, that cabin crew union Bassa (part of the Unite union) had sought to misinterpret his words and actions and that the vast majority of BA staff are opposed to the dispute.
One shareholder said the series of walkouts had been “unforgivable” and that the strikers “don’t deserve the sympathy of shareholders”.
There was applause when one shareholder told the board: “You do seem to be feathering your own nests at the expense of the shareholders you are supposed to serve.”
One shareholder told the board: “The culture in BA isn’t open. It is authoritarian. Management relies on bullying to get its way and the current cabin crew dispute provides clear evidence of that.”
He added that although the cabin crew had “picked the wrong fight at the wrong time” it was “outrageous and simply not right” that those who had legitimately taken strike action are being penalised over travel concessions.
A cabin crew member asked why BA had rejected a cost-saving deal put forward last year by Bassa.
He said Bassa had been told its offer was £10m (€11.95m) shy of what was needed and he wondered if management now regretted losing “£148m (€177m)” from the dispute when they have could have agreed to the Bassa plan.
Mr Walsh replied: “At no time did we believe the proposals put forward from Bassa addressed the challenges we faced.
“Our cabin crew costs are three times those of some of our competitors. The changes we are making will reduce, over time, our cabin crew costs by 44%. It is the right thing to do for the airline and for shareholders. There is no fudging this issue.”
Earlier, Unite members had handed letters to shareholders as they went into the meeting in Westminster, urging management to end its “fixation with conflict”.
After the meeting Mr Walsh said: “It was one of the best annual meetings. I really enjoyed it.
“If we could use this passion against our competitors rather than in fighting among ourselves then BA would be unbeatable.”
Asked what it was like to be booed and jeered, Mr Walsh replied: “As a chief executive you take the applause and you have got to be prepared to take the criticism as well.
“My job is not be a popular individual. My job is to make BA viable. It’s not nice to be depicted as Hitler or the devil. But do I lose any sleep over it? No.”
He said that should more strike action take place, BA is hoping to be able to run 100% of long-haul services.