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Minimal cargo impact expected from British Airways strike

Cargo being loaded on a British Airways jetliner. [Source: British Airways]

Shippers will likely experience little operational impact from the strike by British Airways pilots on Monday and Tuesday, air cargo analysts and service providers said.

Members of the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) voted in July to walk off the job if talks for a new labor deal faltered, giving freight agents plenty of time to find alternative transport with other airlines. Only trans-continental airfreight already en route and requiring a transfer at the London hub at Heathrow International Airport, might be trapped in British Airways’ system.

“There’s excess capacity at nearly all times of the year” for belly cargo moving between the U.S. and the United Kingdom, with the Big Three U.S. airlines (Delta, United and American) and Virgin Atlantic all flying to London, said Jesse Cohen, FreightWaves’ air cargo market expert. “Shippers should have choices as long as their cargo has not already been accepted by British Airways.”

Ian Matheson, who handles media affairs for several U.K. forwarders, said a small amount of cargo has been disrupted by the strike, but logistics companies already had contingency plans to reroute cargo that normally ships via British Airways.

“People will protect their bookings on another carrier and then come back to British Airways,” Cohen explained. “European airlines [deal with work stoppages] all the time. It’s a nuisance, but experienced shippers are used to it.”

British Airways has an extensive U.S. network, serving large and mid-sized cities, such as Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Further minimizing the strike’s cargo impact is the fact that Monday and Tuesday are the least busy days of the week for airfreight. Cohen said another work stoppage planned for Friday, Sept. 27, could affect a few more shipments.

Faced with the prospect of a widespread strike by pilots, British Airways canceled nearly all flights for Sept. 9 and 10. 

“Unfortunately, with no detail from BALPA on which pilots would strike, we had no way of predicting how many would come to work or which aircraft they are qualified to fly, so we had no option but to cancel nearly 100% of our flights,” the airline said in a statement. “We remain ready and willing to return to talks with BALPA.”

The British Airline Pilots Association has rejected British Airways’ proposal to raise pay 11.5% over three years, saying it wants a profit-sharing scheme instead. Under its proposal, all employees would receive a pay increase of up to 7% during good times and no increase when business is weak. 

It argues that International Airlines Group, BA’s parent company that also includes Iberia and Aer Lingus, can afford to share the wealth. The multinational company, which is registered in Spain, has been highly profitable in recent years, with operating earnings of 3.23 billion euros ($3.6 billion) last year and nearly 3 billion euros in 2017. IAG’s 2018 after-tax profit, excluding exceptional items, was 2.4 billion euros.

BALPA said the strike will cost British Airways about $49 million per day.

British Airways says other labor unions for engineers, cabin crew and ground staff have accepted the increase in base wages.

The airline’s cargo traffic declined 8.9% in August, to 336 million freight-ton kilometers, compared to the prior year. Year-to-date freight traffic is down 1.7% vs. 2018 at 2.87 billion freight ton-kilometers, it reported Friday.

Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]