herald

Friday 1 August 2014

Aer Lingus passengers should brace for a bumpy ride this Christmas

AIRLINE strikes in November are as useless as an expired boarding pass.

If you want to hurt an airline you strike at peak time -- high summer, a bank holiday weekend or, in the likely case of the current dispute, at Christmas.

That is the main reason why the odds are still against an Aer Lingus strike next Monday. The game has not played out. The battle armour has not been locked on.

Last night the airline's largest trade union, SIPTU, looked for clarification from the Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, on several points under discussion.

Shootout

This clarification is largely a cosmetic exercise to enable the union to get back into talks after it was unexpectedly locked out by its own members.

"Clarification" is necessary because whoever arranged last Friday's strike-saving game did not realise that one of the players would injure themselves before the game started.

The next stage of talks, too, are a fraud. Their main purpose is to break down. After that everyone will go off to the Labour Court for more talks.

The main purpose of these talks, too, is to break down. Then everyone trundles off elsewhere, where the jury is small and the faces familiar.

The old solutions room was the National Implementation Body, a three-person group. One member was nominated by the Congress of Trade Unions, another by the employers body IBEC and a third honest broker by the Department of the Taoiseach.

NIB was trusted by both sides and solved more than one dispute at the slanty shamrock.

Except that NIB has been snipped. It no longer exists.

The new NIB is the so-called technical group, but it looks much the same. Three members, nominated by ICTU, IBEC and a new honest broker, this time from the Labour Court.

Everyone knows what to expect when we get there. Talks will go on through the night and then they are all solved in the last 20 minutes, early on Monday morning.

It is the industrial relations equivalent of a penalty shoot-out at the end of three boring draws.

But the problem here is nobody is sure how the problem can be solved.

SIPTU's want a substantial top up, similar to the €55m they claim was offered by the other employers in the perforated pension scheme, Dublin Airport Authority.

DAA have denied they made any offer, but SIPTU's game plan has worked like a dream. It has successfully created suspicion between DAA and Aer Lingus and confused their opponents.

Aer Lingus say they are not legally obliged to pay anything. Some of Aer Lingus's shareholders are likely to take an even harder line -- that a once-off payment of ¤104m when the airline privatised in October 2006 was supposed to plug the hole in the pension fund.

It didn't? Too bad.

Michael O'Leary, owner of 29pc of Aer Lingus, is the most enthusiastic adherent of that position. "We won't be listening to Jack O'Connor whining on. Want to strike? Here's the door."

Etihad are likely to adopt a similar position, if recent developments at Air Berlin are anything to go by.

But O'Leary wants to keep his distance. He does not control any board members, nor does he want to. Instead, he loiters outside the door, and whispers of legal action to prevent any pension fund top-up.

Aer Lingus know that a pension fund collapse will created meltdown at the slanty shamrock.







Drudgery

Aer Lingus think they can sell a top-up deal to their shareholders if they tie it to some sort of cost-saving concession, the very cost-saving concession that SIPTU's shop stewards objected to when they decided not to withdraw the strike threat.

In the meantime it is back to the drudgery of cancelled bookings, anxious passengers and the enormous cost of a strike threat in the internet age, even when the strike does not take place.

Don't expect Monday's strike to take place. But there may be many more Mondays to come.

Six weeks from Christmas, Aer Lingus customers don't know who will be nasty and who will be nice.

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