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Those British Airways strikes

While there’s been a lot of commentary on the British Airways strikes, the analysis (whether pro-company or pro-union) tends to miss two major points.

The business model is unsustainable – but that’s the management’s fault, not the unions’

BA’s model before the global financial crisis was to charge a fortune for excellent service in Club World and First, while matching its competitors’ prices and service levels in World Traveller. Together with BA’s massive global coverage and its excellent connections between the financial boom centres of London, New York and Singapore, this business model allowed BA to attract a lot of passengers and make a lot of money.

This was lucky, as BA’s cost base is and remains far higher than that of its competitors. Not on planes, or marketing, or even management – but on staffing. At the time, the money that bankers were willing to pay to fly to Singapore in a bed whilst being served champers by reassuringly camp gentlemen was so vast that BA could get away with paying long-serving cabin staff double the national median wage.

However, this wasn’t a sustainable business model unless you believed the boom times would never end. BA should have taken advantage of the good times to stuff its current crews’ mouths with gold (pay rises, massive early retirement packages, one-off bonuses), in exchange for permission to hire new recruits under less generous contracts so that the long-term cost base was more sensible. Virgin Atlantic pays new recruits gbp15,000 ranging up to about gbp30,000 for senior crew, and anyone who’s flown on Virgin will confirm that this is enough to attract motivated people who provide excellent customer service.

Unfortunately, BA’s CEO for most of the boom – Rod Eddington – had approximately no aptitude for long-term strategic thinking, so kept with the status quo for an easy life (my assessment of his aptitude is supported by his report on UK transport policy two years ago, which managed to miss out high-speed rail completely. I’ve only just discovered via Google that he’s done much the same half-arsed job in Melbourne). Willie Walsh has a better track record, but by the time he’d taken over and settled in, the recession was already imminent. Now, BA has to cut costs for long-term survival, but doesn’t have the money to bribe its staff to accept the cuts.

The unions are in a far stronger position than most commentators realise

BA’s enterprise value – the amount that its assets plus goodwill are worth, before taking into account its financial liabilities – is something like GBP7bn. The reason its market cap is only GBP3bn is because it also has a GBP4bn pension deficit. In other words, money that BA owes to its workers and former workers accounts for more than half of the company’s total value.

This has two policy implications.

One is that Red Tory Philip Blond’s suggestion that the government should mutualise BA isn’t quite as insane as it looks – more than half the company is already owned by the workers, and if things were to get worse then the pension fund has priority over the shareholders as a creditor. A deal like the one the US government brokered for GM, leaving the workers as majority shareholders, isn’t totally implausible.

The other consequence of this ownership pattern is something which should make BA shareholders rather nervous.

If the industrial action were to turn into a major, long-term dispute that drove down passenger numbers and revenues to such a severe extent that BA had to go into administration, then the pension fund would have priority over BA’s assets (including not only its physical assets, but also its brands, goodwill, systems, etc). It’d be hard work to rebuild BA as a global brand after that kind of collapse, but it wouldn’t be impossible – particularly with worker ownership ending the company’s labour crisis overnight. The shareholders, however, would lose everything.

So while the “nobody backs down” outcome isn’t good for either side (as the workers lose salary in the short term, and in the long term their pensions end up secured on a much less valuable asset), it’s a lot more optimal for the workers than it is for the shareholders. This makes negotiations, erm, challenging.

Conclusions? None really, except that I wouldn’t want Willie Walsh’s job, and Rod Eddington shouldn’t be put in charge of the strategic direction of a whelk stall (although he’s probably competent to administer one day-to-day).

**********

Update: another conclusion is that if you blame the strikes on Gordon Brown’s ‘weakness’, you’re so utterly clueless that you shouldn’t even be allowed to assist Rod Eddington at his whelk stall…

Update 2: Jim notes that BA’s business model is also unsustainable in the sense that the oil’s going to run out. This is true, and worth a read (I’m not yet totally sold on Jim’s view on precisely when the oil’s going to run out, but that’s mostly based on sheer incredulity that if the oil’s really going to start running seriously short by 2015, governments and large companies haven’t done more to mitigate that. The GFC highlights that this may be over-trusting of me…).

  1. dsquared
    March 30, 2010 at 10:53 pm | #1

    I had always assumed that BA's "Euro Traveller" class was so named because it aimed to give you roughly the experience of life as a Gypsy.

  2. May 27, 2010 at 9:27 pm | #2

    This is true, and worth a read (I’m not yet totally sold on Jim’s view on precisely when the oil’s going to run out, but that’s mostly based on sheer incredulity that if the oil’s really going to start running seriously short by 2015, governments and large companies haven’t done more to mitigate that.

    If true, then ExxonMobil, Shell, and Total have all failed to build it into their business plans. Perhaps they don't know either?

  3. May 27, 2010 at 9:42 pm | #3

    Take it up with Jim, not me. You're both oil engineers; you both seem to know what you're talking about – genuinely, I'd like to see a serious debate between you guys about whether global oil production has peaked and what'll go on over the next 30 years.

  4. May 28, 2010 at 7:36 am | #4

    I'm more than happy to debate the issue with anyone, John, but I need to correct your description of me as an "oil engineer". Yes, I studied petroleum geology, but I ended up working as an industrial engineer in a different field (the job I found in the food and beverage industry just happened to pay better when I was applying, post-study). That said, I did some consulting for a Saudi group in the oil industry involving a lot of surveys and what have you, but I never got my hands dirty on a rig. So the phrase "oil engineer" might give the wrong impression.

    Nowadays, of course, I've left all that behind and retrained as a psychoanalyst. I'm certainly qualified to discuss most aspects of the oil industry though, and am always happy to do so.

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