British Airways pilots back off on strike


British Airways pilots on Thursday stepped back from a strike authorization less than a day after giving it overwhelming approval.
During a meeting between union officials and airline executives at BA’s headquarters near Heathrow, the two sides agreed to enter mediation to resolve their dispute over pay and benefits at BA’s new subsidiary, OpenSkies.

The union says that 86% of its members had voted to strike in response to the launch of the lower-cost subsidiary. The pilots hadn’t set a date for a strike.

OpenSkies is scheduled to begin service between New York and either Brussels or Paris in June and will operate flights between the USA and European capitals outside the United Kingdom.

Most seats will be first or business class.

In January, BA announced plans to start OpenSkies with a single plane, with the goal of adding a second within six months. By the end of 2009, the airline plans to fly six Boeing 757s from BA’s current fleet.

The average British Airways pilot makes about $117,000 a year, while OpenSkies’ pilots will earn about 25% less, says Keith Bill, a spokesman for the British Airline Pilots Association, which represents about 3,000 BA pilots.

The union fears that executives could use the lower pay at OpenSkies as leverage to eventually reduce BA pilots’ pay, Bill says.

The airline has said that the new subsidiary poses no financial threat to BA’s pilots.

If the BA pilots strike, it would be the first time in more than a quarter century.

Jim McAuslan, the pilot union’s general secretary, said in a joint statement with management that the vote results indicate how strongly pilots feel about the new subsidiary, but that the union is willing to negotiate.

“We have no quarrel with the traveling public and have always maintained that these issues could be resolved through negotiation rather than confrontation,” McAuslan says.

BA CEO Willie Walsh, in the joint statement, said he’s “confident that a settlement can be achieved through conciliation” without disrupting the airline’s schedule.

The new airline takes its name from the open-skies agreement between the United States and the European Union, which lets airlines fly from anywhere in the EU to the USA and vice versa.

The OpenSkies aircraft will be configured to carry just 82 passengers in three classes of service, vs. about 200 passengers in the typical configuration.

The carrier will offer a handheld video system for in-flight entertainment.

The most expensive cabin will have 24 seats that unfold into 6-foot-long flat beds. The cheapest cabin will have just five rows containing 30 seats.

As the new airline grows, OpenSkies plans to fly to other business centers, including Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Milan, Madrid, Zurich and Geneva.

OpenSkies will compete against European airlines such as Lufthansa and KLM, as well as U.S. airlines such as United and American.