MPs have condemned British Airways’ behaviour towards employees during an international crisis as “a national disgrace”, describing it as “wanton destruction of a loyal work force”.
A report by Parliament’s transport select committee also called for the blanket 14-day quarantine period on flight arrivals to be abandoned at the end of June and asked the Department for Transport to explain why an extension to the legal deadline for issuing refunds has not been extended in the UK.
In a damning report into the impact of the coronavirus crisis on aviation, MPs said it was wrong for UK-based airlines to go ahead with large scale redundancies and restructuring before the end of the government’s Job Retention Scheme in October.
The transport committee said fundamental decisions about employees’ futures should not be made prematurely and before proper consideration of the government’s restart and recovery plans for the sector.
British Airways and parent company International Airlines Group is one of a number of airlines to announce jobs will be shed as a result of the crisis. BA has already come under heavy criticism for its plans to lay off around 12,000 staff as a result of the impact of the Covid-19 travel restrictions.
The flag carrier attracted particular criticism from MPs in the report. The committee called BA’s current consultation on staffing changes a calculated attempt to take advantage of the pandemic to cut 12,000 jobs and downgrade the terms and conditions of around 35,000 employees. The consultation is due to end on June 15.
Chair of the transport committee Huw Merriman MP said: “The impact of coronavirus may sadly mean that the loss of some jobs in the aviation sector is justified. The behaviour of British Airways and its parent company, IAG, is not.
“It falls well below the standards expected from any employer, especially in light of the scale of taxpayer subsidy, at this time of national crisis. It is unacceptable that a company would seek to drive this level of change under the cover of a pandemic.
“We looked closely at BA’s plans to consult on at least 12,000 redundancies and change the terms and conditions of the bulk of its employees.
“As a committee, we have sought to examine this further and drive change using the means open to us through the House, asking Urgent Questions, seeking debates, introducing legislation and putting questions directly to the prime minister. We will continue to bring pressure where we can, including the airport slot allocation process.
“This wanton destruction of a loyal work force cannot appear to go without sanction – by Government, parliamentarians or paying passengers who may choose differently in future. We view it is as a national disgrace.”
BA chief executive Alex Cruz hit back against the criticism and defended the airline’s stance over redundancies.
Writing in the Mail on Sunday, he said: “Wea re in a fight to survive. We know we will emerge from the Covid-19 crisis as a much smaller airline.
“We will have fewer customers and fly fewer routes for years to come. Our business will be laden with hudreds of millions of pounds i new debt, so any revenues we make when we return to flyibg will be swallowed u by loan repayments.”
Accusing unions of “scaremongering” over job cuts, he added: “I will do everything in my power to ensure British airways can sustain the maximum number of jobs in line with the new reality of a changed airline industry and a severely weakened global economy.”
The Commons report concludes that four months into the crisis, the government’s strategy should be more developed.
The government’s Aviation Restart, Recovery and Engagement Unit is a “welcome first step”, it said, but to stimulate demand and protect businesses, the committee has recommended a six month suspension of Air Passenger Duty payments and a 12-month business rates relief for airlines and airports across the UK, as is currently the case in Scotland.
MPs also criticised the introduction of a 14 day quarantine on UK arrivals, which started on June 8, as damaging to the sector’s recovery and the wider economy.
The committee called for the policy to be dropped in late June at its next review and urged the government to introduce a more flexible and risk-based approach to border control, using alternatives such as targeted quarantines, ‘air bridges’ and temperature screening. It also asked the government to clearly set out evidence it has used to come to its decision.
Merriman added: “Few industries have been affected more by the coronavirus pandemic than aviation. Thousands of planes, and thousands of passengers, have been grounded, resulting in a 97% reduction in passenger flights compared to the previous year. This vital sector of the UK economy could lose more than £20 billion in revenue. Government must press on with a collaborative strategy for recovery.
“It is imperative that the UK government finds a way to get aviation back on its feet. We don’t believe this fits with a blanket 14 day quarantine period for travellers to the UK. In today’s report, we recommend a more agile response. We also outline our support for a temporary suspension of Air Passenger Duty payments and support with business rates.
“Passenger confidence in airlines and travel operators, dented by unnecessarily difficult refund processes, must be rebuilt. We recommend the government considers whether new protections for passengers should be introduced ahead of future pandemics or other extraordinary circumstances.”
With reference to holiday refunds, the committee asked the government to consider including financial protection for passengers into the planned Airline Insolvency bill.
It recommended that the Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority conduct a “speedy review” of its powers to ensure the rights of passengers are enforced in an effective and timely way.
MPs also questioned why the legal deadlines for issuing consumer refunds, which for package holidays are 14 days under the Package Travel Regulations, were not extended for travel firms in the UK.
Merriman said: “Passenger confidence in airlines and travel operators, dented by unnecessarily difficult refund processes, must be rebuilt. We recommend the government considers whether new protections for passengers should be introduced ahead of future pandemics or other extraordinary circumstances.”
The Committee’s inquiry is part of a wider look at the impact of coronavirus on UK transport.
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