Not just selfish: Unite is killing the BA brand

December 2009

Passengers who will, after all, now be able to fly with BA over the Christmas break and therefore see their loved ones, can, ironically, thank the apparent incompetence of Unite for their unexpected good fortune: It seems a daft error in the union’s planning for the action saw them ballot some members who had actually left BA’s employment.

Unite’s BA cabin crew members were no doubt livid: their quickly formed ‘Christmas at home and not having to work‘ plans were totally scuppered. And, as just about anyone with an ounce of intuition will have noted, not having to work at Christmas had to be the major reason for the high percentage of votes for strike action. Not convinced? Wait for the next ballot which would see strike action taking place in the New Year if it succeeds: the majority, if there is one, will be hugely cut.

The public and media’s outrage and condemnation of the strike action was only matched by the near euphoria when it failed – albeit on a legal technicality. And such outrage was clearly well founded: A good number of BA’s overpaid waitresses (and a few waiters) were prepared to wreck the Christmas break for so many people for largely selfish reasons.

But what’s all this got to do with a monthly comment about brands and marketing? It’s simple: Unite are destroying the BA brand.

Of course BA’s management have been no saints in recent years when it comes to damaging their own brand, with the debacle of the T5 opening at Heathrow being the pinnacle of their mistakes. But there’s a difference, a big difference. Jo Public is bright enough to work out that what happened at T5 was a mistake. Mistakes happen and, when they do, holding your hands up and making sure they don’t happen again is the best way to be forgiven. And it seems BA have been forgiven, as the brand was the fastest riser in the 2009 ‘Promise Index research’ (essentially research which looks at consumer attitudes around whether or not brands are delivering on their core proposition) and bounced back 98 places from a poor position in 2008 to finish up 62nd.

But Unite and some of its mindless members – that description made on the basis that presumably it hasn’t occurred to them that they may well now lose their jobs – have already damaged the BA brand beyond repair (well, at least for the foreseeable, and now uncertain, future) because consumers just won’t trust them. Well would you now book your 2010 Christmas flight with BA to visit relatives on the other side of the world? No, nether would I – or at any other time of the year for that matter.

That a union and its members could still have this sort of power in the age we live seems fundamentally wrong to me – but that’s a political view as much as anything else. Yes as consumers we have choice and thankfully there are plenty of other airlines to fly with (who, from what I read, pay their cabin crews much less than BA but you don’t hear about them coming out on strike at Christmas) but that isn’t really the point. The point is that BA should be a great brand and one we should all trust. BA has made colossal investments in infrastructure – e.g. T5 – and aircraft, but now stand on the brink of collapse because its overpaid cabin crew (and that was another mistake of BA in the past – they should never have caved in to such wage demands) have put the fear of god into BA’s customers.

I don’t doubt for a minute that behind this dispute there’s a genuine grievance, but it seems clear that it wasn’t, ultimately, the reason for the vote to strike through the Christmas holiday. No, it was just about being selfish and not being able to grasp the possible consequences for your own job and indeed the very future of your employer.

I really hope that BA can find a way through and out if this. But short of taking the no doubt illegal step and sacking a good number of its cabin crew and replacing them with the willing army of recruits who’d be happy to do the job for half the money (which would still be a heap more than they currently get serving pizzas and burgers in high street chains), it’s difficult to see how they can.

For me, personally, there are now enough alternatives to BA to ensure I never have to run the risk of flying with them (or not…). And for the record, my airline of choice for internal and European flights is FlyBe. They’re a joy to fly with and without question a brand I trust – and trust, surely, is everything when it comes to airline brands.

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