British Airways pilots use Heathrow crash as weapon in dispute


The pilots’ union will use the narrowly averted disaster last Thursday to appeal today to British Airways to abandon what it claims could be a weakening of safety standards at a new sister airline.

Minutes before a Boeing 777 crash-landed at Heathrow, the BA committee of the British Air Line Pilots Association (Balpa) had voted to hold a strike ballot among the airline’s 3,000 pilots.

The union, which is objecting to BA’s plans to create an airline with a separate body of pilots who will fly between New York and Paris or Brussels, decided to suspend the ballot to allow the airline to focus on recovering from the crash-landing.

Yesterday afternoon the wreckage of the Boeing 777 was removed from the southern runway and normal flight timetables resumed at Heathrow as it emerged that computer failure was the most likely cause of BA038’s engine shutdown.

British Airways technical staff believe that the Boeing aircraft’s computerised control system caused both engines to fail during its final descent towards Heathrow on Thursday. All 136 passengers and 16 crew survived.

Experts said that a simultaneous mechanical failure of the two engines was “unthinkable”. They suggested that the fault must lie in the computer system that controlled them.

“There are separate autothrottles, a left computer and a right computer . . . everything is split,” a former 777 pilot said. “For both engines to fail at the same time, it has got to have been commanded.”

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch has downloaded all the data from the aircraft’s flight recorders and its preliminary report on the incident is expected to be released in 30 days.

This afternoon union represent- atives will meet BA managers at the airline’s headquarters near Heathrow and will make clear that the ballot will go ahead unless BA backs down.

BA has claimed that the safety standards will be the same at the new airline, OpenSkies, as at the main company.

But Balpa says that it is concerned that separate qualifications are being introduced, meaning that OpenSkies’ pilots would have to take additional courses if they wanted to transfer to British Airways.

Balpa wants the pilots from the two airlines to work as a single body, with the same training and a single ranking system, under which seniority is linked to the number of years within the company.

Balpa will argue today that the crash underlined the importance of having highly trained and experienced pilots conforming to a common set of standards. BA has praised the quick actions of the pilots, John Coward and Peter Burkill, in preventing a far worse incident.

Jim McAuslan, Balpa’s general secretary, said: “If the past 72 hours haven’t changed the company’s mind, I don’t know what will. We are concerned that OpenSkies may have different standards.

“We are also concerned that, once you start outsourcing, you lose control of quality.”

BA pilots believe that the airline is attempting to break their grip on the company by creating another airline that will have lower operating costs. The pilots fear that OpenSkies will grow rapidly and could be used by BA as a bargaining chip in negotiations over pay and conditions.

BA announced this month that it would take advantage of a treaty liberalising the air travel market between Europe and the United States by creating OpenSkies.

The airline, which is named after the treaty, will allow BA to compete directly with European companies such as Air France-KLM.

OpenSkies will start flying in June between New York and Paris or Brussels, using Boeing 757 aircraft with only 82 seats.

A BA spokesman refused to answer questions about the different qualifications that could apply at the two airlines. He said: “We are due to continue discussions with Balpa on Monday. It would not be appropriate to comment in advance of these talks.”