Much is being written and said about the British Airways cabin crew strikes. Having been on a BA flight from Heathrow to New York today, we have had a personal experience of one. And we would like to share it.
At Terminal 5, there was no sign of a strike action. All was normal at the bag-drops. Security was similar. And, for flights to the U.S., at the gate, extra searches. Again, as (sadly) normal.
The first “strike evidence” came to light as we boarded the aircraft. Only one man checked boarding cards, and he was casual and relaxed; we could not make out what other role he had with the company. Immediately aboard a woman hailed us, mistakenly for a second thinking we had boarded without our cards having been checked; and she seemed very professional — as if she might have been a “regular” flight attendant.
It was as we made our way to our seats in economy, though, that we truly discovered a story largely uncovered by media.
We are informed by many a (negative) source how BA is supposedly running its flights using “temp” staff, and half-trained ground staff, in the place of fully-trained cabin crew. Yet there is no cabin crew on earth nearly as fully-trained as those we encountered on our flight today. For as we approached our seats, we saw one, helping a woman place a large carry-on in the overhead, and the wife suddenly noticed his rank: captain.
Stunned, and thinking he was just doing a “PR” bit before heading to the cockpit, yours truly couldn’t resist exclaiming jokingly, “I don’t want my captain lifting heavy bags! Let me get hurt helping someone!”
At that, he smiled and said, “No, no, I’m not flying today,” as he moved on to assist someone else.
We took our seats. Moments later, the wife figured it out: “He’s doing cabin service!”
He was indeed. Off had just gone his jacket. Across the cabin, we spotted yet another captain doing the same. And, later, a first-officer, too.
While other pilots were flying the plane, these pilots (later, we saw still another captain) were the “flight attendants”. All told, our plane had 8 “cabin crew.” That was less than normal, but legally acceptable for safety.
Of those, more than half were clearly “pilot servers”. They did not provide hot or special meals; we got cold salads (that were reasonable enough) and desserts. But they did hot coffee and tea, though.
Mostly, they made the crossing amusing. It was probably the most pleasant “World Traveler” class flight we have ever taken. It was also, oddly, the quietest: the absence of so many flight attendants was actually noticeable: while the pilots did their “rounds”, there was little of the normal “chattering” and gatherings in the galleys and (obviously) fewer staff in the aisles, pacing up and down.
The singular moment for us, though, was when the captain attending our section provided a remarkable insight. Shortly after take-off — after he had pointed out the emergency exits during the safety demonstration — he rolled up his sleeves and produced a food cart and proceeded to serve drinks. As he came to us, the wife just couldn’t resist.
“Madam, what can I get you to drink?,” he looked at her and asked.
“First, sir, may I ask you something?”
“Have you been pressured by the company? Or have you volunteered to do this?”
At that, he leaned in a bit. “We have volunteered,” he said. “The only pressure within the company is on those causing this disruption, because we are all jolly well tired of it,” he concluded with a smile and a bit of a flourish.
“Thank you for that, sir,” the wife smiled back. “A water would be nice.”
After we got our drinks, and he moved past us, she whispered to yours truly, “I feel a letter coming on.”
Meaning a letter of praise. He and those highly-paid, incredibly-trained other pilots were not actually flying, yet still making that plane fly. And how many others were (and are and will be) doing the same on other flights to come?
In contrast, the other morning, yours truly recalls hearing a news report on Classic FM. In it a BA flight attendant, voice disguised, proclaimed her “15 years” there had made her “the face of BA.” That as she lamented the loss of her (huge) travel discount (while minimizing how that forfeit was owing to her choosing to strike, and that the company had given her more than fair warning of that consequence) and how she often has had to spend Christmas away from home.
At that, yours truly could only but wonder: yes, probably sometimes with her family, enjoying that (now former) perk, in Sydney or Sharm el-Sheikh. The image that jumped to mind was somehow not that of someone struggling to put food on the table while 6 days’ a week laboring for a pittance down a mine. The word “gall” seemed far better to sum her up.
As did this other comparison. She of, to be blunt, a decidedly lower skill set, is exclaiming how invaluable she is? That while some of the most highly-trained people imaginable are volunteering to serve drinks and check toilets?
“The face of BA”? Actually, to us, the customers, during this “action” the face of that company has now become those pilots earlier today, who want to see the airline which we regular customers (and shareholders) love, somehow survive. We were almost embarrassed at how graciously those pilots worked, and how pleasantly they handed out apple juice.
Had they not volunteered to be on that plane, and do that, we and a couple hundred others would not have gotten across the Atlantic today. BA pilots have always been a breed apart and, in their own way, a cut above. In volunteering to do ordinary work of a sort no one would have expected them to do during the strikes, those pilots prove that they are even more extraordinary than we had previously believed them to be.