Latest strike threat threatens to spoil BA's party

What a shame that the start of BA's new stock-market era is likely to be marred by another vote for industrial action...

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
As of today, it's no longer possible to buy shares in British Airways: the UK airline's merger with Iberia has taken effect, and shares in the combined group will begin trading on the stock-market on Monday. Unfortunately, what should be the start of a new era for BA looks set to be spoiled by the as-yet-unresolved issue that undermined the final months of its previous era: its long-running dispute with cabin crew. The result of Unite's latest strike ballot is due this afternoon, and it looks as though staff will vote to walk out on strike again. BA can only hope for signs that support for the union's cause is starting to flag...

BA is hardly the first famous name to disappear from the stock market, of course. And since it will still trade under the BA brand, passengers will hardly notice the difference. But its demise still seems momentous, somehow: after all, this is an airline that after privatisation became one of the UK's most significant global companies, at least until the low-cost carriers started eating its in-flight breakfast. We're sure we're not alone in feeling some sense of ownership of/ affection for BA. Then again, we appreciate that if you were literally an owner of BA (as a shareholder) you may have less cause for affection: the stock closed yesterday at more than twice its original float price, but it's had its fair share of ups and downs and actually under-performed the market over the period.

It doesn't help that the merged airlines will now trade under the desperately anodyne title of 'International Airlines Group'. BA boss Willie Walsh insists this is a deliberate policy, because he's planning to expand the group through further mergers and acquisitions. This is a perfectly sensible strategy, and we suspect he's absolutely right that consolidation is the only way forward for much of the airline industry. But as names go, it couldn't be more dull.

And although BA will soon have a new stock market ticker, it hasn't managed to shake off all its old problems. That pesky cabin-crew dispute appeared to be nearing a resolution a few months back, but things have gone pear-shaped again; this afternoon Unite is expected to reveal that its members have voted for further strike action. That's going to mean more headaches for BA, whose bottom line took a £150m hit from all the strike action last year. Now there's a real chance that services will be disrupted again, possibly over its busy Easter period.

The only possible silver lining to this cloud, as far as BA is concerned, would be if today's results suggest that some of Unite's members are losing the stomach for the fight. There's been some speculation that BA is waiting to see how strong the union's hand is before re-entering negotiations; if turn-out is down, or the yes-vote is lower, there might be more impetus towards a resolution. For everyone's sake - passengers, staff and the airline itself - let's hope so. Never mind the new name: BA will only really be able to move onwards and upwards when it succeeds in putting this hugely damaging dispute behind it.

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