London -- Britain’s airports were eerily quiet this morning as the first day of a British Airways pilot strike began -- the first for the company in its 100 years of operation. Tens of thousands of passengers have been affected.
The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) announced the three days of strikes would take place on September 9, 10, and 27 over a pay and working condition dispute with British Airways, the U.K.’s largest airline. British Airways have told passengers not to come to the airport and have promised to help customers with refunds or by giving them the option to re-book their flights.
British Airways normally operates up to 850 flights a day, a spokesperson told ABC News. They have cancelled almost all of them, including international flights into Great Britain from North America.
The airline decided to cancel incoming Sunday night flights from New York's JFK Airport, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto, according to The Independent, because many passengers were due to take onward flights and the airline doesn't have the space to accommodate all their grounded planes in the U.K. JFK is currently hosting 15 planes, The Independent reports.
“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 per cent our flights,” a British Airways spokesperson told ABC News via email.
The union, which represents 85% of all commercial pilots flying in the U.K., made the announcement in late August. In a press release they said that the strike was called “as a last resort and with enormous frustration at the way the business is now being run.”
Both sides have repeatedly stated their willingness to come to the table, but the fact that they have failed to come to an agreement shows the intractable and bitter nature of the dispute.
The two sides have been in negotiations over pay and working conditions for the past year. In early July this year, the union voted 93% in favor of industrial action. In late July, British Airways lost an attempt to seek a court injunction to prevent the union striking.
“We understand the frustration and disruption BALPA's strike action has caused our customers,” said the British Airways spokesperson. “After many months of trying to resolve the pay dispute, we are extremely sorry that it has come to this.”
The union issued a statement saying that their “argument is with the company’s highly paid management and not with passengers.”
The BALPA General Secretary Brian Strutton said that pilots had “previously taken big pay cuts to help the company through hard times. Now BA is making billions of pounds of profit, its pilots have made a fair, reasonable and affordable claim for pay and benefits.”
In 2009, British Airways pilots agreed to a 2.6% pay cut and a reduction of 20% to certain allowances after the airline said they were in a “fight for survival” following the financial crisis and subsequent economic recession, the BBC reported at the time. They received shares in the airline. British Airlines have said that the union rejected their deal of 11.5 per cent salary increase over three years which they deemed very fair.
For their part, the representatives for airline workers wrote in late 2018 that “British Airways has allowed a culture to develop in which employees are disconnected from the airline’s success.” According to them, “the airline has moved from a £230m operating loss in 2009 to a £1.8bn profit in 2017, with an even better result forecast for 2018.”
A day of strike action will cost British Airways around £40m the union said in a statement. “Three days will cost in the region of £120m. The gap between BA’s position and BALPA’s position is about £5m.”
In 2018, British Airways employed about 3,900 pilots, carries 145,000 customers every day, and served those customers 25 million cups of tea, the latest figures available. The company celebrated its 100th anniversary on August 25 this year.