The British Airways Strike : Separating Unite The Union’s Fiction From Fact

Yesterday Unite The Union, the trade union representing British Airways’ cabin crew, began the first stage of a two-part seven-day strike against the airline.   While I am not going to delve into the politics of the strike, I do want to address the significant misinformation and massively factually incorrect press releases issued by Unite The Union.

Early in the day many of the press statements did not correlate with the on-the-ground reports I was receiving from travelers, plane spotters and other unbiased and independent sources.   I understand that both British Airways and Unite The Union must try and win the battle of public perception, but rather than trust press releases from either party I spent the day fact checking.

Why am I not breaking down the statements from British Airways? All of their statements regarding operations during the start of the strike have proven to be factual … so … the following is a point-by-point break down of Unite The Union’s press releases yesterday morning, Saturday the 20th of March:

– Unite The Union Release:  British Airways has managed to fly only one third of its normal scheduled departures

– BA Strike Fact: British Airways publicly stated it would be operating 65% of its regularly scheduled flights during the strike a week prior to the strike. British Airways actually exceeded its estimates of 65% by reinstating more than 20 flights when more cabin crew than expected reported for duty.

– United The Union Release: BA’s flagship terminal T5 is a ghost town as passengers stay away

– BA Strike Fact: By all reported by witnesses on the ground, Heathrow Terminal 5 was very active. Passengers activity may have been a bit lighter than usual, however the first day of the strike was a Saturday and some people has swapped flights t avoid the strike, however by all independent eye witness reports T5 was busy.

– Unite The Union Release: The first long haul BA flight out (10am) was to Abu Dhabi

– BA Strike Fact: The first British Airways long haul flight to depart was in fact flight BA 117 to New York’s JFK at 8:20am. It departed on-time.

– Unite The Union Release: From 12.20pm until 2.30pm only 10 flights departed from Heathrow, normally there would be 50 during the same period

– BA Strike Fact: Between 12:20pm and 2:30pm the departure board from BAA’s London Heathrow Airport shows that 34 British Airways flights pushed back and departed the airport.

– Unite The Union Release: 20 more planes had been moved to Cardiff to be parked, and a further 20 flown to Shannon, in western Ireland, to sit out the strike

– BA Strike Fact: British Airways positioned and parked no aircraft at either Cardiff or Shannon.

– Unite The Union Release: By 2pm, only one flight to JFK airport had departed – normally there are five

– BA Strike Fact: Three British Airways flights from London Heathrow to New York’s JFK had departed before 2:00pm. BA 117 departed on-time at 8:20am; BA 175 departed 17 minutes late at 11:00am; BA 177 departed onetime at 1:35pm.   Later in the day BA 115 departed on-time at 4:00pm and BA 179 departed on-time at 5:55pm.  Additionally, British Airways

– Unite The Union Release: At Gatwick, one third of flights have failed to take off

– BA Strike Fact: British Airways operated well above 66% of its London Gatwick flights. Independent reports verify that crews staffing at Gatwick were at expected levels.

It is worth nothing that yesterday during the strike various independent sources verified that 52.5% of British Airways’ Heathrow based cabin crews had reported for duty, as well as 97% of Gatwick’s cabin crew personnel. In various press statements Unite The Union has stated that 80% of its members were supporting the strike and not reporting to duty. The numbers issued by Unite, even in comparison to non-union cabin crews working during the strike, do not add up to 80% of its union members supporting the strike.

While I am not taking any sides in this labour dispute, I am choosing to side with factual and verifiable truth. Should Unite The Union seek the support of the public, the politicians and its members, it might want to start checking its facts before issuing public releases.

Below are two photos of the British Airways departures and arrivals board from London Heathrow Airport yesterday. These photos are courtesy of Carter Stewart.

Happy Flying!



  1. Where are you getting these surprisingly detailed and supposedly independently sourced facts if not BA? What member of the public is going to know if crewing was at the expected levels?

    I think you’re after a free upgrade for your next flight.

  2. The information comes from flights flown, BA staff who are not management, independent media sources

    As for the flight information, it can all be verified via Yesterday I was tracking flights directly from the BAA’s Heathrow Airport site.

    As I tend to be a Star Alliance flyer, with BMI Diamond Club Gold status … I generally do not fly British Airways, thus no need for an upgrade.

    Finding information is not always so difficult if you know where to look and who to ask.

    On a side note … if you plan to have any credibility you might want to use an actual e-mail address, not “”

    Happy Flying!


  3. Good, well-researched, neutral story. If only the British media were so professional and corroborate stories they report in the manner that you have.

    I was a Unite member in a different industry, and it often seemed that they were there for Unite rather than their members. The sad thing is that they seem to be using this to gain political leverage than out of any desire to progress their members’ (or their members’ customers) interests.

    For political context I guess I should add that I sit on the Guardian-BBC axis and still plan to be a union member when I return to a permanent job, but would not return to Unite.



  4. Hi there

    When working out your facts and figures – please ensure that you don’t use codeshare flights as these flights are not operated by BA (i am sure you are aware of that) BA are including the codeshares in their released figures, even though they are operated by other airlines who are not involved in the dispute.

    You may or may not be aware that a large % of flights yesterday left LHR empty just to reach their destintion to operate back to the UK today (same again today I beieve).

    I am sure you have checked todays flight departures on flightstats and seen that BA are today only operating circa 42% of flights, including those being operated by the wet-leased aircraft. The strike is starting to take effect.



  5. Pete

    I did not turn to BA for any statistics or numbers. I pulled my flight data by checking the departures data on the BAA’s London Heathrow website then verified the info using Flight Stats searching by Airport/Airline. Included in this numbers are flights on aircraft chartered by British Airways under the ACMI Lease agreements, however they were flown until BA flight numbers.

    The flights that departed Heathrow empty picked up crew that was already down-route, thus not on strike, and returned with expected passenger loads.

    I am not addressing the politics of this strike … I am merely looking at facts distributed by Unite The Union yesterday that are incorrect. I understand the job of media relations specialists is to spin the story in their favour and take factual license within reason, however the information released by Unite The Union was well outside the bounds of acceptable ethics.

    Happy Flying!


  6. Refreshing to read facts without spin from either side, also refreshing to see that BA statements area lot closer to the truth than Unite.

  7. To impress me with your even handedness / non political stance – I would have liked to have seen some ‘BA Press Release… UNITE Fact’ lines. Or are you saying there are none of these – and all of what BA say is correct and all of what UNITE say is fallacious?

  8. At Last! A journalist who is not taken in by the Unite blather. The whole line of “wanting to get Willie to the table” is probably (now) true, but it is a pity they didn’t hold the same view nine months ago when BA were trying to negotiate. It was Unite who took a vote of “No Negotiation” at a meeting at Sandown Park. It was Unite (Bassa) who refused to sit at the same table as Unite (Amicus).

    Faced wth the above stonewalling BA had little option but to impose the changes (at no cost the the crews). It was Unite who called the strike dates knowing that the offer (which MIGHT have been accepted by the crews) would be withdrawn if they did announce the dates.

    Just my opinion, but this dispute now seems to be more about control of the Union with factions within Unite positioning themselves for the forthcoming elections.

  9. Jack,

    You can see Willie Walsh’s public statement from yesterday here:

    I cannot find any information to dispute the facts stated by BA’s CEO. The airline is obviously taking careful steps to only release information that is factually correct.

    I checked up on all the statements made by Walsh in video press release just as I did with Unite. If BA was releasing factually incorrect information I would have written about it. I

    f you read Flying With Fish you’ll notice I have in fact slammed Willie Walsh in the past, such as here –

    Happy Flying!


  10. A well balanced and researched article -it is a shame that it is buried on this blog and not in the national media.

    BA cabin crew (and especially militant union members) are in denial about the success of the BA contingency operation.

    Empty (ie. “freighter” flight will not show up on the departures boards and so I suspect are not counted in your totals.

    Within BA the Unite officials are becoming objects of ridicule – likened to “Comical Ali” during the Iraq war, saying that Iraqi forces were winning as US tanks rolled in behind him. They stand outside saying that the BA operation is crippled, and all the time aircraft are taking off and landing behind them!

  11. Thankyou for cutting out the waffle and static from the generally brain dead journalistically semi-inclined reporters who fail sadly to investigate the garbage they are fed and regurgitate in the national media. Your article here is a refreshing change from the poor quality of recent reporting.

    Its tough and I’m sorry that things are changing for BA staff but competition from the cheapies but still safe to fly, is forcing it.

    BA will reduce its cost base or die as a company as airtravel becomes a commodity just like bus travel did and rail travel more recently.

  12. Well done the info very good and relates to people I know who are working within BA this weekend.
    Unite have been throwing accusations at all parts of BA in the past week even there own members in Engineering and Loading have not been spared.
    If you look at the picket lines there are Unite people from other locations and are not flying crew.
    The facts are always questioned when the fiction is taken at face value.

    Thanks for your honesty

  13. Your points seem to point to a good performance by BA. Perhaps your aircraft spotting friends could supply just how many BA aeroplanes are parked up at Heathrow? Having driven past there today it appears that every inch of room has been taken. Could you suggest how such a ‘robust plan’ can possibly be operating without the use of chartered aircraft?…

  14. ps

    If there are no aircraft at Cardiff or Shannon could you tell us where the 747 fleet is?

  15. Pete,

    I am not debating one side or another. I am simply going through Unite The Union’s press statement and picking apart their blatantly incorrect information.

    However since you asked, yesterday there were 43 BA aircraft at Heathrow. During most operational days approximately 25 would be parked at Heathrow for various operational reasons.

    Th fact is, BA saw the strike coming and made a robust plan which included chartering aircraft to handle passenger movements. The airline needs to fly, it is flying. BA has even leased three Ryanair 737s with crew, as shocking as that may be.

    Happy Flying!


  16. Pete,

    Cardiff is BA’s heavy maintenance base of operations. Presently there are reported to be three aircraft in Cardiff, all undergoing maintenance. Shannon had no BA aircraft yesterday, as the LCY-SNN-JFK flight does not operate on Saturday.

    Yesterday quite a few BA 747s were in full operational service to destinations including JFK, BAH and SFO.

    Happy Flying!


  17. Just to ensure clarity on your blog – you have a picture of the arrivals and departures board as a visual to suggest the strike is not having a significant impact…..BA cabin crew (possibly all cabin crew, I’m not sure) do not strike downroute. Therefore, if crew and aircraft are downroute, they will always fly in back to base even after a strike has started….hence the high level of arrivals despite the strike.

    I’ve also not seen if BA have a confirmed whether the 52.5% of crew who reported for duty includes those who are reporting downroute and returning to base. Obviously these crew would not strike as per the above, but there isn’t clarity if they are being included.

    Finally, BA have told a number of crew on long term sick leave to report in this weekend for ground based assignments. Again, I’m not sure if this is being included in the 52.5% number.

    First casualty is truth etc etc. I personally don’t trust spin from either party when the tension between them is so high.

  18. Peter,

    I am aware that crew down route cannot go on strike until they return back to base. However the outbound flights would be returning with crew, in service, and working the flights.

    To clarify , the 52.5% of cabin screw staff who reported to duty are only referencing those who are outbound from LHR (exLHR)

    Further more, Unite’s statement that only 26 flight attendants reported is incorrect as well. BA moved multiple 747-400 flights today. 26 flight attendants could not even put two of those flights in the air, much less all the other flights BA has flown today with its own crew on its own metal.

    Happy Flying!


  19. @Peter

    Is including the crews who haven’t yet gone on strike, any worse than Unite including all the crews who weren’t due to work this weekend in their number of strikers?


  20. Jake ,

    I’m sure there are computers in Colchester, Essex. If you can find the time to send me such a comment then you can find the time to visit BA’s YouTube Channel, listen to Willie Walsh’s statements, then fact check them.

    I am not saying BA is right or wrong in this labour dispute, but they have no released any information that is factually incorrect.

    Happy Flying!


  21. When the longhaul crews return, aren’t they on leave for a few days afterwards? If so, any crew away at the start of the strike will miss this first strike?

  22. Excellent blog post. Here is some more material from Unite for you to work on:

    What’s really happening during the BA strike. Today, by 15:30:

    140 planes now parked up at Heathrow;

    Only nine crew turned up for work today out of 1,100. Company claims that over 1,000 have reported for work are a distortion. This includes those who are flying back to the UK from a trip which took them out of country before the strike;

    Early reports suggest a strike-breaking volunteer crew has broken an exit. They are said to have “blown a slide” i.e. broken the function needed when the doors go from automatic to manual on landing. This means that the emergency services need to attend to make the plane fit to fly;

    Only nine Heathrow flights have gone with passengers including:
    Prague (3 club; 25 economy)
    Paris (12 economy)
    Frankfurt (5 club, 59 economy – the plane takes 300)
    Amsterdam (2 club, 18 in economy – the plane takes 230)
    Entebee (7 passengers out of 189)
    Dubai (2 flights scheduled but too few passengers so only one flight)
    Miami (74 passengers out of 337)

    Most BA long haul flights are “ghost flights”. By midday, 49 flights out from LHR were empty. No passengers;

    Most flights flying with CAA minimum crew only i.e 4 crew members short

    Crew turn out at Bedfont FC and on the picket lines in even greater numbers than yesterday;

    All long haul flights suffering delays as BA wait for crew – any crew – to turn up.

  23. Leo

    I have read Unite’s Day Two Update. I just challenged them in Twitter, but knew they’d not reply. I am going to try and research this information if I have time tomorrow.

    Flying With Fish is a non-commercial blog and sometimes all the research eats into my day job … which is presently consulting airlines (BA is NOT a client of mine) on deploying emerging media strategies and campaigns.

    Happy Flying!


  24. Interesting research, notwithstanding the rights and wrongs of the dispute. BA saw the strike coming and did its homework. It protected as many flights as possible with all possible means. When all is said and done and the proverbial dust settles after the strike ends, the possible advantage gained by Unite and how this will pan out on the negotiating table remains to be seen.

    What is clear right now is that they managed to inconvenience passengers, increase the cost and financially weaken the airline thus making it more difficult to meet their demands.

  25. I am guessing that Pete is cabin crew. His blind faith in Unite’s announcements and refusal to believe anything that BA say is echoed by many crew in denial during this dispute.

    Crew CAN go on strike “downroute” – it is just that they choose to let BA continue to pay for their hotels, get paid for coming home (rather than pay for their own flights) and then go on “days off” during the rest of the strike thereby dodging the need to actually go on strike.

    Unite is counting EVERYBODY that is not working as strikers, regardless of whether they were meant to work or not. I suspect that they are also assuming that all crew inbound to Heathrow will all go on strike on arrival – not happening from what I hear.

    Pete chooses not to believe that there are NO BA planes at Shannon and only aircraft under maintenance at Cardiff. This is a problem that BA has- these people CHOOSE to believe these things despite the evidence. If there were so many planes at these places I am sure a Unite member in those areas could have sent in pictures as proof.

    BA is CHOOSING to send aircraft out with minimum crew so as to maximise the number of flights by spreading the crew over more planes. On those flights with few passengers this is still more than is needed for cabin services and is only limited by safety regulations.

    Unite has been boasting that cabin crew volunteers are being sent home. I understand they are – because enough “real” crew are turning up to operate the flights without the need for them!

    Finally, talking about aircraft leaving without passengers, it does not mean that they are all without cabin crew! Aircraft and crew need to be in the right places to pick up services after the strike ends.

    Once again, thank you for the balanced reporting.

  26. WOW! “140 planes parked at Heathrow?” according to UNITE – if we had that kind of spare room around the place building a 3rd runway would be a doddle!

  27. It is obvious from that the union is talking nonsense yet the journalists are still claiming there is no way to verify the claims of either side. It is worth noting that as a public company BA is commiting an offense if it releases materially misleading information. Whereas there is no law preventing United from making up any old rubbish it likes. You do not have to take sides in this dispute to know that BA is currently winning the credibility battle. This case is also a strong illustration of the incompetence of the main stream media and why specialists such as FIsh and specialised information sources like flightaware beat the pants off all the half-witted journalists who are supposed to be reporting this story.

  28. You have no idea how refreshing independant analysis of whats going on is!

    Unite’s updates are, as has clearly been shown here works of fiction.

    A major issue that I have is that CC in BASSA need indenpendant, accurate information on which to base their decissions – the media in general, broadcast and print have been shown wanting in this respect (be it they decide to strike or not)

    Good, factual work – you have just gained a follower!

  29. Johnathan, what you state is absolutely correct. All released information by BA has to be correct or it could face charges. Unite meanwhile has no law preventing it from releasing the rubbish it has to date. There is a photo on a cabin crew forum showing that only a couple of planes parked at Cardiff for maintenance. My husband flew to Boston yesterday with over 200 passengers on his flight. I totally agree that the media have been very poor and just do not seem to ask the right questions or challenge the things Unite are saying. This site is doing a better job.

  30. Well done! Finally – something to confirm what many people have long been suspecting. I sympathize with cabin crew over BA’s alleged plans to reduce pay in the future and use cheaper crews – but cuts are being made across all industries and professions. Many employees mention that they have families to feed and that service provisions on BA aircraft lag behind those of other airlines – but have they forgotten that BA also suffers because it must spend more on salaries and cabin provisions (food etc) because of the high cost of living in Britain? Many people have lost their jobs in this recession, and if BA goes under as a result of continuous striking, then so will BA employees. I suspect that most people are sympathetic towards BA, mainly because Unite urging people to strike during a recession and is deliberately trying to mislead the public by issuing contentious and erroneous statistics about BA flights and the state of T5. It is not surprising that people are drawing comparisons with the pre-Thatcher era.
    Just to clarify, I am an 18 year old student in Britain – and so am not affiliated with BA in any way.

  31. Instead of seeing this as being about politics – I am struggling to understand this in the context of psychology – and human behaviour. I take for read that most BA staff are intelligent people. I also take for read that they would not take strike action if they thought it would damage them in the medium to long term. (Indeed, remember that when you strike – you do not get paid – and in this case – they have sacrificed their travel discounts, apparently).

    So my question is: why are they striking?

  32. I would like to commend British Airways for there stance in this strike.
    I was a miner in the 1984/85 strike but we were fighting to keep our pits Villages and towns alive ”Not about money”
    with the way the world is now everyone should realiese that we should be thankfull of our jobs and the company’s future in these trouble times.
    To say that the unite union backs the Labour party and plans to take over it makes me laugh ‘well done Gordon Brown ‘

    Keep it up BA most of this country are behind you


  33. As an ex-pat, I fly back to the UK three to four times a year from Australia. I decided to fly BA during Christmas 2009 and wish I had not bothered. It was horrible, everything from the service, to the food to the plane. To make things worse, BA was to go on strike the week after I was to arrivein the UK and so my travel partner’s plans could have been scuttled if BA has decided to strike. He was due to leave Sydney Christmas eve and arrive LHR christmas day –

    What happened to the BA I once knew and loved?

    I do however feel sorry for those BA staff who wants to keep the flag flying. They want to see the Airline survive, but do the unions. The unions should look to the future because for them and BA it is bleak.

    I fly again to the UK on the 5th May 2010 – not on BA but on Emirates – I cannot afford to miss a quadruple family christening at which I will be Godfather to two of the children being christened.

    BA Staff – Travel is one of the first things to be impacted when the economy goes south – Airlines were affected in the 90’s when I worked in the industry – its happened again – and I am sure it will happen in the future…It is that sort of industry – If people do not have the money to fly then they wont…

    The thing is, will BA be there in the future – I doubt it. You have allowed the unions to take over and at the end of the day they will not be able to prevent the airline going under… You can make that difference…

    Do not let the unions dictate because only you can help BA survive and get through this and become the airline it once was.

  34. It is indeed a sad time for BA and all of it’s employees! After all, the loss of millions of pounds for the company is going to affect each staff member in every single department of BA.

    Only the Cabin Crew know themselves of what changes have said to be made to their current contracts, so I coudn’t possibly comment if the company boss is being unreasonable or not. However the Unite Union is clearly to blame for this, and they need to be stopped by the authorities in taking this strike action any further!

    Everyone needs to realise every company has had to cut costs in order to survive the current climate. I am £600 worse off a month due to the changing market in my job, and my boss having to cut our allowances!

    My lifestyle has had to change drastically because of this, and I am not best pleased with my boss, but at the same time I have to understand these cuts were made in order for the company to continue it’s business! I am thankfull I still have a job, unfortunately for some of my colleagues, they weren’t so fortunate to have kept their jobs!

    British Airways flag represents Great Britain, and at the momment it’s reputation is being severely damaged by a disagreement which has gone completely out of hand. If this carries on, everyone concerned will be the looser in the end!!!

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