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British Airways pilots ground planes in unprecedented 48-hour strike (reuters.com)
52 points by hhs 37 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 73 comments

From a summary of the issue I heard on LBC (UK radio station) a couple of days ago, this all stems from when the pilots agreed to a pay and pensions cut several years ago when BA was in financial trouble, and now that BA (and it's new parent company) is now back in profit, they want an inflation adjusted boost to put their pay and pensions back to where they should be.

Precisely this ... the problem in the UK media is this is being portrayed as "Evil high paid pilots holding the company hostage and ruining your holiday!".

Yes that's basically what happened at BA.

Some other airlines did the same around 2009, but in a more pilot friendly way. For example at KLM the pilot's pay decrease to help the airline through the crisis was combined with a big increase in profit sharing bonus. At that time there was no profit to share, but now everyone is happy with the big bonuses.

BA was in financial trouble partly because their unionized staff are paid far too much. Putting their salary back "where they should be" (a novel concept) would just cause them to be unaffordable again. As will going on strike for 48 hours.

Basically BA is toast as an airline. They can't break their own union and are steadily being ground down by airlines with more flexible work forces.

It would be really interesting to know what the actual profits are and what percentage currently goes to the pilots versus executives and operational costs etc.

Google says they reported $2 billion in profit. Say $300 million was given to 1000 pilots. That would be $300,000 each.

They probably got something like a few thousand pounds pay increase and are feeling like it's not adding up.

I'm routing for the pilots.

> I'm routing for the pilots

Air Traffic Control are routing for the pilots; you are merely rooting for them! :-)

That may have been a trans-atlantic joke. Pronounciation: Root 66. Network rooter. Joe Root made yet another duck.

A rout (or disorderly retreat) is probably not what anyone wants

Joe Rout. Makes sense.

British Airways Plc is a publicly traded company, so you know, a lot of this information is publicly available:


Look at the account filings. Not sure if they will break down how much they pay pilots altogether, but there should be data about executive pay and employee wages and salaries.

I’m also rooting for the pilots, by the way.

I’m in favor of pilots, and flight personnel in general, being paid handsomely. The last thing the public needs is flight personnel being disgruntled about not being paid enough.

I want the peace of mind that the people making my flight happen are incredibly happy.

And yet revealed preference suggests that people shop for flights almost exclusively on price. If you feel like paying an extra hundred or five for happier employees that’s a fine personal preference but people who act like that aren’t a significant enough market segment to be worth catering to.

"Revealed preferences" need to die. That people shop on price, all other things being equal, is obvious and the driver of the economy. If all else is not equal, but people don't know it or can't meaningfully affect it, they'll still shop on price and any talk of "revealed preferences" here is nonsense.

A typical flyer is separated by at least one layer of abstraction (airline, travel agency, ...) from the labor situation of the flight crew, so there's little visibility into that, and little possibility to affect things with your purchasing choice. How can I "reveal" the real ordering of my preferences if I can't pay $X extra to get a slightly safer flight, because the only other option on the market costs $10X more? At the same time, there's high trust that government organizations ensure that civilian flight is safe to the point any variation is a rounding error not worth thinking about.

A typical flyer is not concerned about the pay of pilots. He's concerned about his price to fly. Those that are concerned about pay do so regardless of whether they're flying. They do it because they root for the little guy, or they hate corporations, or they respect pilots. But the point is the two groups are different. They do overlap somewhat, but it's meaningless.

Ditto for teachers, police, firemen and medical personnel.

Where was the quarterly/annual filing, I couldn't find while skimming.

Incidentally, it seems someone at the company is gonna have a stern talking to: https://i.imgur.com/FcsmqtU.png

Found the most recent: https://s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/document-api-images-live....

Seems they paid 2.5 bil in salaries to all employees

An article from the former airline pilot explaining airline unions:


> An article from the former airline pilot explaining airline unions:

Philip Greenspun is tech entrepreneur that flies as a hobby. He flew in an airline for a short while, but he is not a "former airline pilot".

Sully, on the other hand, writes in his book:

> “I also understood the history behind our profession’s dependence on a seniority system. It started in the 1930s, as a way to avoid the favoritism, cronyism, and nepotism rampant in the early days. It was about safety as much as fairness. It insulated us from office politics and threats to hinder our careers if we didn’t “play the game.” A layman might think such a seniority system would lead to mediocrity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pilots are a pretty proud bunch and they find it rewarding when they have the respect of their peers. The system works.”

The seniority system is what gives the captain the power to say no to the airline when pressured to fly in unsafe conditions without repercussions.

Philip Greenspun could just say no and go back to his life as a retired tech millionaire.

>He flew in an airline for a short while, but he is not a "former airline pilot".

"He flew in an airline for a short while" literally means that he is a former airline pilot, i.e. in the past he piloted aircraft, while being employed by an airline. Currently he also works as a helicopter instructor.

These are different things.

He was not subject to the same constraints and incentives that professional airline pilots are subject to.

For example, without a union and the seniority system, airline pilots that are pressured to fly with badly maintained planes are faced with a major dilemma. They can agree and risk their passengers, or refuse and face repercussions. Their livelihood and social status depends on them keeping their jobs, and the vast majority don't have the resources to withstand lawsuits.

Philip Greenspun can just go back to fly his collection of private planes and helicopters. He faces no repercussions if he refuses or goes to the press.

He has no skin in this game.

And yet it doesn't mean that he can't write a factual article about airline unions using his insider's perspective.

Everyone can write an article about airline unions.

He just doesn't have the insider's perspective.

He can disagree with Sully's reasons why the seniority system is important for safety, but he should at least address it.

This article has a lot of arguments specifically about safety. And even then, unions can increase safety in some domain, while simultaneously decrease safety in other domain and bankrupt host airline.

Moreover, Sully, as senior pilot, was direct benefactor of the union system that exploits younger pilots, so his opinions should be scrutinized first of all.

A better analogy would be the company owner's son who "started at the bottom" explaining why a union is unnecessary.

Genuine question here... why is this on HN? It has nothing to do with software, hardware or even tech of any kind!

Interesting business news are always appreciated.

How unions operate in high-skill industries is absolutely relevant here. We can learn a lot. Hollywood unions are also relevant.

Anyone know standard time working per month? I thought these major carriers had pretty cushy hours / benefts - (ie, 80 hrs / month, good flight and other benefits).

I don’t know, but does it matter? If an employee group understands how much they are worth, and can get more benefits commensurate with that worth, then I applaud them.

At some point it does. If they're being underpaid, that's one issue. If they're aware that they're currently irreplaceable and able to effectively hold the company hostage, that's a different one.

I don’t see much of a problem as long as the company is still making a profit. The striking workers could strike until they’re receiving all the company’s profit, at which point it would be as if they’re receiving the actual value of their labor. Not that crazy of an idea.

Or they don't know when to stop and bring the company down: https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/blame-unions-hostess-b...

Maybe the company was failing anyway. I'm not saying they shouldn't strike. Just that we don't seem to have clear numbers to tell if they should or not.

This is a ridiculous statement. The "actual value" of the striking workers (pilots) labor is "ALL the company's profit?" Nobody else -- mechanics, flight crew, reservations agents, IT staff, marketing, execs -- deserves a piece? What about investors -- by definition, nobody invests in a company designed to not return a profit.

Of course I don’t mean that one specific subset of employees (e.g. pilots) deserve all the profits distributed to them at the expense of other employees. Ideally all the workers of a firm would be organized together, but I’m aware that this isn’t the current reality of this situation.

And money used to pay back loans wouldn’t be considered “profit” in any definitions I’m familiar with. If the “investment” takes some other form such that the investor expects to be paid back a lot more due to employees being paid much less than the value they’re delivering, then yeah, I’m fine with the employees organizing and saying that’s not going to happen.

>> I’m fine with the employees organizing and saying that’s not going to happen

This is even more ridiculous. Is YComb (since we're on HN) not entitled to a positive return from the companies it helped found, just because some random group of employees claims they aren't being paid according to the "value they're delivering"?

I never used the word “entitled.” I think if an investor is extracting surplus value from employees of one of their portfolio companies, the employees of that company should be free to attempt to organize to regain as much of that surplus value as they can.

You are backtracking. The initial statement you wrote said that the value of the worker's labor = ALL the company's profit. If the workers "regain" it all, there's nothing left for an investor/founder. Since this is the scenario you endorse (you've said so three times), your position is that investors and founders should not receive any return on their investment, nor any gains from establishing the company in the first place.

> The initial statement you wrote said that the value of the worker's labor = ALL the company's profit.

I didn't say that. I said that I don't have a problem with workers organizing to ask for more compensation so long as the company is earning profit. I didn't say anyone is "entitled" to anything and I didn't even predict whether or not the efforts would work.

> If the workers "regain" it all, there's nothing left for an investor/founder.

I addressed investors already. Money used to pay back a loan is not what I consider "profit," in the same way that money used to pay for office electricity is not what I consider "profit." Obviously companies have to pay their bills. As for founders, I assume they're functioning essentially as the manager/employer and thus are the party that is negotiating with the organized labor of their company. I'm not prescribing some amount of money they get to keep versus their employees—that's precisely what the negotiations will determine.

> Since this is the scenario you endorse (you've said so three times), your position is that investors and founders should not receive any return on their investment, nor any gains from establishing the company in the first place.

I have said that zero times and have now explicitly refuted it twice, lest there be any confusion about what I am claiming.

>> until they’re receiving all the company’s profit, at which point it would be as if they’re receiving the actual value of their labor

Your first comment clearly states that the value of labor is all the company's profit. ALL. You wrote it. "receiving ALL the company's profit" = "receiving the actual value of their labor". Which means, it's only possible for the airline to show a profit by underpaying labor, and therefore existence of profit = investors are exploiting labor for "surplus value." As long as you stand by the initial statement, everything that follows is crazy-talk, whether or not you're able to follow the logic of your own statements from a to b to c.

I didn't say that. Truly. Try to copy and paste me saying that, and you'll find that I did not say it.

Ideally all the workers of a firm would be organized together

They are. That organisation is called a company and decides what they get paid, which varies by job and rank.

There's no such thing as a union in which every employee of a firm is represented - by the very nature of what unions do, they create a (largely imaginary) line between "labour" and "management" then pit the first against the second.

Per another comment in another thread [0] it's not only not a ridiculous statement, but a little bit how things actually work, at least in the US.

[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20915781

The point of the article is that yes, the scenario where pilots can claim all airline profits is ridiculous, because is it sub-optimal for everyone -- pilots, passengers, and certainly investors.

It also never argues that pilots are "delivering value" equal to the airline profits. Only that the pilots are in a position, due to regulation, to claim those profits, because they can shut the airline down (a power that flight attendants, mechanics, reservation agents, etc don't have).

Wouldn't someone irreplaceable be underpaid until they are compensated enough such that they could be replaced for that amount?

Wouldn't someone who is replaceable be overpaid until they were compensated little enough such that no-one else would work for that amount?

I'm not sure if you subscribe to the notice that it's OK for the worker to max out their compensation while it's not OK for the owner to do so, but I think it's a pretty common stance. Admittedly, the reverse is also true (as I'm hoping to point out).

Ideally, I would hope that negotiations were conducted in a way that is mutually beneficially to both parties. I'd rather we didn't resort to getting as much as we can at the expense of the other party.

Of course in a dog-eat-dog world, what can we expect? All of those bastards on the other side are going to do it to us so let's do it to them first.

But is there an advantage to living in a world that isn't dog-eat-dog? Is it possible to encourage a society where neither side "does it" to the other and neither side thinks of the other as "bastards"? I really, really hope so.

(Possibly not related to your actual position -- your words just made me think of that)

I think both parties try to maximize/minimize for their own benefit, which is healthy and is exactly what determines the market for compensation.

Inherently any gain by one side is at the expense of the other, there is no avoiding that aspect. Either than $X is paid to the pilots or it goes elsewhere in the business. I'm not sure what a non-dog-eat-dog world would look like and how it would be able to persist without heavy incentives to take advantage.

It depends what's the availability of replacements. For example if almost all pilots are employed, you won't get more pilots until they're trained. Paying more than another company just moves the problem temporarily, not solves it.

Similar to what happens with expensive cities which don't expand. The prices keep raising and there will still be people who can afford to pay for a long time... until the larger environment either changes or collapses.

Sure, but those kinds of structural issues are the airline's problem. BA's pilots are underpaid if they are so in demand, and BA would have to pay a lot more to poach pilots from other airlines.

If they're underpaid, sure. (And I would assume they are) But that was the original question - what are the working conditions? If they were paid $1M a day (of course they're not), would you still say they're underpaid just because they're in demand? What about $300k a year? What about $200k?

This article doesn't say what the pay / demand is. Another one (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/sep/08/ba-pilots-t...) mentions BA proposing an increase that would bring "some" over £200k a year. I'm sure that's cherry-picked for PR and doesn't show the whole distribution, but it's at least one number.

If they were paid $1M and could get more then they are still underpaid and there is sufficient demand.

There is no absolute number at which they are no longer underpaid, it is completely relative to how much demand there is and how much companies are willing to pay for that demand.

If the airlines and pilots existed in isolation then maybe. If they were paid 1M, I'd think they're overpaid and the tickets should be cheaper instead. There definitely is a threshold compared to all other salaries / cost of living / economy where the pay would become irrational - regardless of demand.

What if that employee group are upper management?

Of course they should have the right to strike too, and they do.

The 80 hrs/month figure is really more related to pay. Pilots and cabin crew typically are only paid for the time the door is closed on the aircraft. Real hours spent at work and away from home are far greater. I think measuring by days away from home is a more accurate description of how much flight crew work. It depends a lot on where one works and the type of flying they’re doing but it ranges from 12-18 days/month of being on the road working.

Flight benefits vary as well but they’re almost always space available and with load factors in the US creeping upwards the value in those benefits has slowly been eroding away. Hard to plan a vacation when you have almost no idea when you’ll get there.

Agreed on flight benefits in US. If flying alone can JS, but with family that doesn't work. Wasn't sure if the Euro market had more standby availability.

That said, pilot pay goes up to about $400/hr at Delta as an example including profit share.

Usually whatever hours per month you see for pilots is just flight time, and pilots work more than that.

Depending on which country (ergo the Aviation Org i.e. FAA/CAA/EASA/CASA) is designated the home base for the company; the amount of hours flight crew are allowed to fly and be on standby is legally restricted, and so is the minimum pay they should be given.

Pretty amazing to be on a 6 figure salary and still strike.

I'm not in a union, but I have threatened to, and have quit with a 6 figure salary because I was under paid for what I was doing.

Make me work 100 hour weeks and no one else can do my job and I'm not at least 200k? Yeah, I'm underpaid.

A 6 figure income isn't wealthy in most (US) markets you can get that. Live in New York, California, Washington or Illinois? A low 100k salary can mean living paycheck to paycheck or living with an insufferable commute.

You can't really know if you're underpaid for what you're doing if nobody else is paying more. You might be overpaid - who knows? If there's no market there's no price discovery.

If you can get better pay elsewhere and quit to get it, that's perfectly fair game, nobody minds that because it's (in a well run company) not disruptive to the customers.

All employees "quitting" (but not really) at once because they're unionised and are already getting top pay, but want even more, and disrupt vast amounts of travel and expense at huge cost to random customers who have no power or involvement is very different.

> You can't really know if you're underpaid for what you're doing if nobody else is paying more.

I was talking relative to my coworkers at the same job.

It can quickly become apparent how much your coworkers are making relative to you if you pay attention to subtle things like vacations they take, what they did on their weekends, the cars they drive, where they live, etc.

In my case, teams had been "right-sized" such that I solely owned systems that at one point had a total of 13 people assigned to them, with no help. Yes, I held myself to a constrained budget to contribute to 401k, save as much as I could elsewhere and had a modest, yet nice apartment. Yet, my older coworkers had less responsibility, worked shorter hours, drove nicer cars, owned houses and took extravagant vacations where I drove a modest used car, rented and my "vacations" were to visit my parents (although, admittedly, airfare to visit my parents is high - it'd be cheaper to fly to Europe than visit my parents in the US, and I live in the US).

Thing is, for years, at comp time, I'd been arguing for a larger raise than bonus. I was getting a token $5k/year raise, but several 10Ks in bonus. Salary is generally a given (sure, they could in theory lower it, but rarely do healthy companies do that if you're performing), plus, typically your slice of the bonus pool is also partially determined by your salary.

So, yeah, it took trying to quit, with an offer in hand, to get my salary adjusted to where it should have been given my tenure at the company and the level of responsibility I had. Once they realized I was serious and was ready to walk, over a weekend, they gave me a nearly 30% intrayear raise. It wasn't quite what I wanted, but it put me on par with my coworkers and it was several 10s of thousands over the offer I was willing to walk for.

Also, the offer I walked away from was from one of the FAANG, and I won't say which. Apparently, having walked away from the offer has effectively black balled me from progressing in interviews with them. I've had a few phone screens with them since that I think I did well in, just to get radio silence from them. Not even a response from the initial recruiter. I've stopped entertaining of even responding to inquiries from the particular company.

The fundamental unfairness of employment is that your masters skim off the top of your labor's true value and give you less than you are worth to line their pockets. The pilots are within the bounds of fairness to demand up to the full value of their labor.

I am not taking sides in this dispute, I am sure the pilots do have some valid grievances. However "the full value of their labor" cannot be realized without a) planes to fly, b) a system for taking reservations, assigning people to seats, and collecting revenue, c) a maintenance staff to keep the planes functioning and safe, d) flight scheduling, purchasing/leasing gates at hundreds of airports (many international), financing fuel purchases, and much, much more.

Obviously, flying planes is a valuable skill. But without the enormous support system that the airline itself provides, pilots would have little opportunity to realize that value.

> Obviously, flying planes is a valuable skill. But without the enormous support system that the airline itself provides, pilots would have little opportunity to realize that value.

Then you're over-identifying what the value of their labor is. If what they need to do requires the support of others, don't factor the input of others into "the full value of their labor".

I.e. if the total value of the airline is X, and the value the pilots provides is P, and the value that all the other employees provide is N, where N + P = X, then the full value of the pilots labor is still P, not X. So I take it to mean they're wanting to get 100% of P.

>> N + P = X

It's much more complicated than that. One of the beautiful things about business, or any cooperative effort, is that the sum of the group/company is worth more than the sum of value of individual effort. 2+2=5, if you will.

The problem, when it comes to human nature, is that once the total value is determined (market cap, annual profit, ROI, etc), individuals tend to over-estimate the value of their individual contribution.

It is not just airlines. Uber drivers say they provide the rides, there would be no service without their effort. Uber says nobody was paying you to drive before we launched our platform. Both are correct. Foxconn employees say we're building all these damn iPhones, no other facility or workers can produce at this volume. Apple says if we didn't design and market such a popular product you'd have nothing to build. Again, both are correct. A film director says, look, the movie I made grossed $400 million -- and the studio replies, which you could have never made without the $100 million budget we risked, up front.

I have no position in this debate, but the exact valuation of their labour is basically exactly what's at stake here, right? Neoclassical economics would say their labour is worth the market price (ie what they're currently being paid, or else they could go find someone else to pay them more). Obviously that contains some simplifying assumptions but it is at least a point of view worth considering.

The neoclassical point of view is worth considering, but just like the much more scrutinized (by modern economists) labour theory of value, it has its fair share of criticisms from its Ricardian/Marxian proponents. A Marxian economist would say that the capacity to work, i.e labour-power, is (more or less, subject to fluctuation) is the value which when reflected in the price-form is the market price, but labour-power is not equal to labour, rather the use-value of labour-power is labour itself. The Marxian economist would say there are good reasons to believe that, either through a proof of the labour theory of value (though not necessarily a proof in the way of British positivism represented by Ricardo and J.S. Mill), a criticism of alternative models (neoclassical or Sraffian), empirical work on the correspondance between values and prices (such as Shaikh and Tonak's work) or explanation of the dual character of labour (as concrete and abstract) which reflects the essence which makes its way to appearance in surface phenomena (prices).

I don't mean to be a proponent of that view (at least not in this comment) but that might be where the parent comment is coming from.

Getting “the full value of their labor” would leave no surplus to cover capital depreciation or other people in the airline’s wages, or to pay the airline’s debts or capital costs, or to allow the airline to bank cash for a rainy day.

In many cooperative enterprises, like the historical Cherokee communal farming set-up, people set aside some of the value of what they produce to (a) cover miscellaneous capital costs and (b) be provide a reserve. The pilots should be producing a little more than they receive; otherwise the airline would collapse the next time a flight got delayed and people had to be put up in a hotel.

You’ve just described the history of the US airline sector. Every 30 years financiers forger what an awful investment airlines are and invest money into subsidizing price wars and expansions. It looks like there’s rising profits, the pilots’ unions get generous raises and then competition gets vicious and the profits disappear and the airlines go bankrupt.

> The fundamental unfairness of employment is that your masters skim off the top of your labor's true value

Sure, that's why we see so many pilots selling direct to consumers, right?

Pretty amazing to be on a 7+ figure salary and negotiate remuneration increase including being given ownership of the assets with the alternative being you'll be unmotivated doing the work or quit and take key employees with you. Absolutely standard though. Utterly unremarkable by contrast.

Compensation is not an absolute thing, it's relative.

Employees could be making 6 or 7 figures but be treated terribly and still have valid reasons to strike.

It’s all about your bargaining position. In business no agreements are final, you can threaten to break them if you think you can get more money out of it and if the other side blinks first you get more money, if they don’t you back down, get sued or lose your job.

It’s not a moral question, it’s about who’s closer to the money, or harder to replace.

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