British Airways pilots protest plan to start new airline


British Airways Plc pilots today demonstrated at the carrier’s London headquarters against the company’s plans to start a new airline.

About 1,000 pilots and their family members marched toward British Airways’ offices near London Heathrow airport, in a protest that lasted two and a half hours, spokesman Keith Bill said today in a telephone interview. Police closed the A4 road to allow access to the pilots.

The British Air Line Pilots Association, or Balpa, has voted to strike in protest of BA’s OpenSkies unit, which will fly between Paris and New York starting in June. British Airways wants to recruit pilots for the new business from outside its current pool, and the union says BA will use the subsidiary to force changes to pay and working conditions for all of the airline’s flight crews.

“We want the pilots flying to be BA pilots,” Jim McAuslan, Balpa’s general secretary, said today in a telephone interview as the protest came to an end. “It’s about job security, careers and respect.”

British Airways Chief Executive Officer Willie Walsh has said the new carrier needs a lower cost base if it’s to compete with larger network airlines. OpenSkies is part of the airline’s response to a European Union-U.S. agreement that will liberalize trans-Atlantic air travel starting March 31.

Assurances to Pilots

The airline has given assurances that OpenSkies will not affect the salaries and terms of mainline pilots. OpenSkies will use a single Boeing Co. 757 plane to operate the first Paris-New York service, growing to six planes by the end of 2009.

“British Airways wants to preserve their flexibility — it wants business passengers for OpenSkies, they’re going to be hard won and they need to do it economically,” said John Strickland, director of London-based aviation specialist JLS Consulting Ltd. “They seem to have done their best to calm the fears of Balpa, but the union has been influenced by what they’ve seen in the States.”

The so-called open-skies treaty will allow EU airlines to fly to the U.S. from any of the bloc’s airports, instead of just their home countries. It also ends the lock that British Airways and three other carriers have had on U.S. service from Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport.

Balpa pilots voted to strike on Feb. 21. Under British law they had a 28-day window in which to start the walkout. The U.K. High Court extended the deadline after talks between the two sides broke down and the union sought to block an injunction threatened by the airline.

Preventing Strike

British Airways is trying to use EU competition law to prevent a strike, according to Balpa. The law gives EU nationals the right to establish businesses in another of the bloc’s countries.

Balpa represents about 3,000 of the airline’s 3,200 pilots. The Air Line Pilots Association, said it will support Balpa’s demonstration this weekend by picketing at U.S. airports including New York’s John F. Kennedy International, Washington Dulles, Los Angeles International, San Francisco International and Seattle Tacoma International.

American Airlines Inc. pilots were picketing at the British Airways terminal at John F. Kennedy airport at the same time as the protest march in London took place, McAuslan said.