Other airline dispute could take off

The Aer Lingus roster dispute has hit the headlines, but the pensions row raises the prospect of further strikes, writes Stephen Rogers.

Other airline dispute could take off

JUST a week before they should be jetting off, tens of thousands of holidaymakers are this morning still no clearer as to whether their travel plans will be thrown into chaos through absolutely no fault of their own.

The vast majority of the Aer Lingus passengers due to fly next Monday and Wednesday almost certainly do not care that airline and its unions cannot agree on rosters. They do not care who is at fault for the impasse, or about the financial and reputational implications for the airline. They and their families just want their holiday to go ahead as they had meticulously planned it.

The passengers due to fly next week doubtless know from the previous cabin strike at the end of May that the airline has to give a certain amount of lead-in time to passengers to enable them to re-book their journey for another day or choose to seek a refund.

Therefore they know that it could be as little as 48 hours before the email will drop in their inbox telling them their flight is cancelled and they need to either fly the next or previous day or look for a refund.

That would mean either having to lose a day of their long-awaited holidays or desperately trying to contact their accommodation- provider to see if they can pay out for another night and travel a day earlier. Car hire companies may need to be contacted and begged for a change of rental period, no doubt incurring a further cost.

The intervention of the Labour Court has given a shred of hope that their holiday will go ahead as planned. But how likely is it that the court will be able to find common ground quick enough for the airline not to have to start cancelling flights? How likely is a solution to a dispute which was discussed for three days last week and through countless engagements in the weeks and months before?

The rhetoric between the management and unions in recent days has been of the toxicity which seems commonplace at the airline for a number of years now. Both have accused each other of engaging in “cynical ploys”.

Over the weekend, Aer Lingus chief executive Christoph Müller claimed Impact union leaders had not even established how many of its members wanted to work a “5:3” roster — five days on and three days off — before it led them out on strike on May 30.

“Ask yourself how a trade union can print placards with the slogan ‘5:3, it works as well as we do’, lead its members on a strike disrupting tens of thousands of paying customers, and then ask its members who would like to work on a 5:3 roster?” he wrote in a message to staff.

“I have learned some lessons from this. Obviously, more cabin crew balloted for a 5:3 fixed, roster pattern than actually want it. This is certainly a very sad example of how situations can be misrepresented when no supporting information is provided.”

For its part, the union claimed in a message to its members issued yesterday that “to date, by their own admission, the company have not modelled the cost implications of our 5:3:5:3 proposals”.

“It is difficult to understand how Aer Lingus allowed a strike to take place [on May 30] about a proposal that they dismissed without ever evaluating,” it said. The union also said the only model that the airline was willing to consider was its own “which by their own admission is neither cost neutral nor efficient”.

“In its correspondence to us, Aer Lingus management invited the union committee to resolve the inconsistencies in their proposal. It seems bizarre to us that the company would propose a model that, by its very design, drives costs and then refuse to consider alternatives,” it said.

While the dispute over rosters has been taking all the headlines over the last month, in the background is the three-year long dispute over the €700m-plus hole in the Irish Airlines Superannuation pension scheme which covers Aer Lingus and Dublin Airport Authority workers. That raises the prospect of even further strikes, this time by almost all workers at the airline.

In the coming days, a report will be presented from the expert panel tasked with examining how to address the shortfall. There are fears that its proposals will not go far enough to appease unions which have already shown their determination to take every step to protect their members’ interests.

Earlier this year, Siptu demanded both Aer Lingus and the DAA up their cash injections of €140m and €50m respectively to cover the deficit in benefits for members. The companies’ refusal resulted in the threat of stoppages on March 14.

Yesterday, Transport Minister Leo Varadkar said the two issues — the rosters and pensions — were “not connected,” but that is not strictly true. If the strikes over rosters had gone ahead next week meaning €30m in revenue was lost to the airline in the space of less than a month, the shareholders who have to sign off on the contribution to the pension deficit would likely be even less minded to do so. That would almost certainly lead to yet more industrial action, this time potentially involving both ground and air crews at Aer Lingus.

There can be no doubt that intending travellers are now seeing Aer Lingus as a liability when it comes to providing a guaranteed service. The reputational damage the airline has suffered through numerous industrial relations clashes has meant that, unless there is a change in relations at the airline, next summer many passengers may not be willing to take a chance.

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