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British Airways grinds to a halt as pilots go on 2-day strike

Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport in London would normally be bustling with activity Monday, but a 48-hour strike by British Airways pilots has forced the carrier to ground most of its flights. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
September 9 at 9:54 AM

If you’re flying on British Airways on Monday or Tuesday, you probably aren’t anymore.

The flagship airline was forced to cancel nearly all flights during a 48-hour pilot strike after months of negotiations with the British Airline Pilots’ Association deadlocked over salary, with tensions boiling over to a standstill on the runway. Nearly 200,000 passengers were slated to fly during the walkout, a British Airways spokesperson told CNN Business.

“British Airways needs to wake up and realise its pilots are determined to be heard,” said Brian Strutton, general secretary of the pilots union, in a statement. “They’ve previously taken big pay cuts to help the company through hard times. Now [British Airways] is making billions of pounds of profit, its pilots have made a fair, reasonable and affordable claim for pay and benefits.”

In a post Monday, British Airways said it had no choice but to cancel nearly 100 percent of its flights because it had “no detail from [the pilots association] on which pilots would strike,” it could not predict “how many would come to work or which aircraft they are qualified to fly.” The carrier said it remained “ready and willing” to return to talks with the pilots union.

British Airways is offering all affected customers full refunds or the option to rebook to other travel days or other airlines. Customers were urged against coming to the airports and making sure their contact information was up to date. Images of Heathrow and other airports showed eerily empty check-in lines. Other carriers associated with British Airways, including BA CityFlyer, Comair and SUN-AIR were not affected.

Salary is at the center of the fight between British Airways and its pilots. The carrier offered an 11.5 percent increase over three years. But pilots said they want a larger share of the airline’s profit. The pilot union said it offered a proposal to British Airways management earlier this month that could have prevented the two-day strike, but that negotiations quickly fell apart.

Strutton said that pilots have “taken big pay cuts to help the company through hard times,” including in the years following the financial crisis. In a news release, the union said that its argument is with the company’s management and not with affected passengers. The pilots association said that one day of strikes would cost the airline the equivalent of $50 million.

British Airways said that other labor unions — constituting almost 90 percent of all company staff, including engineers, cabin crew and ground staff — had accepted the 11.5 percent increase. In addition to basic pay, pilots also receive annual pay increments and regular flying allowances. A company spokesperson told CNN that the average salary for a British Airways captain is the equivalent of $206,000 plus flying allowances. An 11.5 percent uptick would take the average salary to nearly $250,000.

The carrier wasn’t alone in criticizing the pilots — it was joined by stranded travelers bearing the brunt of the pilots’ two-day walkout.

“Dear #BritishAirways pilots. £100k + 11% is not only an eye-wateringly-good salary but is 3 x the average wage in this country. Many equally hard-working, highly skilled people survive on this and less,” one Twitter poster said. “On your next flight please try to land here in the real world.”

The pilots, meanwhile, are planning another strike for Sept. 27. On Monday, British Airways said it would contact passengers flying that day.

“We’re very sorry about the impact [the pilots union] action has had,” the company wrote in its news release. “We don’t underestimate the inconvenience caused, for which we are deeply sorry.”