Talk of ‘opportunity’ for IAG leaves many questions unanswered

The announcement by Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe that the Government intends to support IAG’s bid for Aer Lingus did not come as a surprise to staff at the airline, or to the unions representing them.

The announcement by Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe that the Government intends to support IAG’s bid for Aer Lingus did not come as a surprise to staff at the airline, or to the unions representing them.

On the contrary, it was clear from the high level of media anticipation in recent weeks that the Government’s approval was imminent.

The buoyant mood of the minister as he announced the Government’s backing, echoed by other stakeholder groups, created an almost carnival-like atmosphere against which the IAG boss Willie Walsh staged his press conference yesterday.

The word on everybody’s lips was “opportunity”. The IAG bid is an opportunity for IAG shareholders to acquire a valuable piece of aviation real estate, along with a valuable transport hub, highly prized landing slots in one of the world’s busiest airports, a few regional hubs with huge potential, a carrier with considerable cash assets, a globally recognised brand, and the skills and experience of 4,000 staff who are among the best brand ambassadors in aviation.

The Government’s backing also presents an opportunity for the Government to retrieve some cash and divest itself of the former national carrier whose fate, they will argue, was sealed when 75% of the airline was privatised some years ago.

Amidst all this banter of a new dawn for Aer Lingus, and a future loaded with opportunity safe in the bosom of the IAG mothership, there remains one group who haven’t been invited to share in IAG’s joyous new age.

For the staff at Aer Lingus, genuine concerns about compulsory redundancies, the prospect of a further erosion of their terms and conditions, and the fallout from future restructuring under IAG all remain.

This is the group of staff who’ve been enthusiastic brand ambassadors, and the staff to whom the management of Aer Lingus have always turned during the various crises faced by the airline over the last 25 years. These are the staff whose commitment, hard work and attention to every possible detail has returned the company to profitability and made Aer Lingus an attractive acquisition for IAG.

Three months ago, Impact sought a number of specific assurances in the event that a formal bid by IAG for the State’s share in Aer Lingus is successful. We outlined these commitments without prejudice to the fact that we still don’t believe that the proposed takeover is a good idea for jobs, for Aer Lingus workers or Ireland’s connectivity and economic development. There are too many open questions about IAG’s future intentions that cannot be answered by the promise of opportunities.

Late on Tuesday evening, the Aer Lingus CEO Stephen Kavanagh finally responded to some of the concerns we’d raised. His response was prompted by a direct communication from the Government. Unfortunately, it has always been our experience that Aer Lingus management will defer any engagement with us on issues of concern until it becomes necessary through the threat of industrial action or the intervention of a third party.

The vague set of assurances in Mr Kavanagh’s letter has done little to allay the concerns of staff and the letter seemed designed merely to keep alive the prospect of a deal with the Government. Once the Dáil casts a vote in favour of the sale (as seems likely to be the case), that letter will have achieved its main objective. IAG can then turn its attention to working the other major shareholder, while Aer Lingus waits in the wings for the deal to close.

Thereafter, there will be very little left for the Government to do, and the interests of IAG shareholders will overtake the interests of the Irish economy and the Irish travelling public.

The Government can clutch a set of assurances in its hands, and the chief of these will evaporate once the seven-year period has elapsed at Heathrow. Those vital connection points can then be moved to where they will make larger profits.

While uncertainty remains for Aer Lingus staff, it is worth considering the contrasting fortunes of those “backroom” workers whose functions will be transposed to IAG’s London headquarters, against those of the management team at Aer Lingus who are set for a major windfall. One group will walk out with a modest redundancy payment, the others are set to become very wealthy people.

In that sense, it all comes back to opportunities. For IAG shareholders and Aer Lingus management, the future looks very bright indeed. For the staff making an adjustment to this new future, they’re working for an employer who remains casually disinterested in their concerns about Aer Lingus’ future.

Impact is the largest union representing staff at Aer Lingus, including pilots and cabin crew. The union’s IESA branch represents ground staff and some management grades.

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