Lufthansa must try harder

Some airlines promote a luxurious image, some fun, some sexy and others cheap. Lufthansa is none of those – its one main feature is that it is solid and reliable.

Sadly, and not for the first time, today’s pilots strike suggests the airline does not want to live up to its own image any longer.

The strike by pilots from midday on Monday until midnight on Tuesday was public knowledge on Friday, or earlier for those who keep a watch on such things. Anyone looking at Lufthansa’s website on Sunday afternoon would have been none the wiser though. There was the usual link to Travel Information where some details of the strike were given and passengers told of the option to travel earlier if they wanted. Passengers in Germany probably knew of the strike because of local media coverage but foreign strikes do not get much coverage elsewhere so the likelihood is that most British (and French, Spanish, Italian and others) travellers knew nothing about it. And Lufthansa certainly wasn’t going to volunteer the news.

Like every airline, Lufthansa wants to keep in touch with its customers by social media. They have an active Twitter account  - but not so active it could be bothered to mention the strike until 17.00 on Sunday.

Yes, we all know that strikes can get called off at short notice but why could not Lufthansa do passengers the courtesy of warning them of the (strong) possibility?

Lufthansa has a long record of strikes in recent years and this behaviour is nothing new. 

The least an airline should do when it is aware of the serious possibility of a strike is to add a highlighted section to its homepage. No company wants to boast of its strikes but there is a clear line between providing correct information and deliberately avoiding passing it on.

Lufthansa needs to take lessons from Ryanair, and many others, on how to warn passengers of potential disruption. 

Avoid Qantas

Qantas is just embarking on a corporate cost-cutting exercise so morale is bound to be low. It has been trying to cut costs for years but, despite a relative boom in Australia, its finances remain dire. Moody’s has just slashed the airline’s credit rating by two notches to junk status, and swingeing job cuts are just around the corner. It cannot be a very happy place to work at the moment, and it is only natural that the passenger experience will suffer as a result.

French Air Traffic Controllers and UKIP

French air traffic controllers are so fond of strikes that it is easy to lose track of what they might be striking about on any particular occasion. However, the reason for the strike over the last two days deserves some attention because it is actually a huge political question – and not an easy one for anyone to answer.

The strike was over the possible implementation by the EU of the Single European Sky project. At the moment, each country has its own air traffic system and aircraft crossing Europe get handed from country to country as they fly over – sometimes for only a few minutes. This causes a huge amount of extra work and possible delay as all the national systems have to be coordinated. The plan was for the existing network to be scrapped and a far smaller number of regional centres  set up. This would be much more efficient and save airlines, and their passengers time and money.

The French were protesting about the possible loss of jobs in France but the smaller countries would be hit much harder since some would lose all their air traffic control capabilities entirely.

From an efficiency point of view, the case for the Single European Sky is un-opposable but  many governments have been luke-warm (at best) about the plan because they would effectively lose their borders completely. What would happen if they decided to withdraw from the EU at some time? What about their military operations? And, what about the substantial revenues they get from charging for air traffic control?

The issue has been festering in Brussels for some years now because it is such a political hot potato. The airlines and IATA have been strident in their criticism of Brussels for dragging their feet but there has been very little public debate on the subject.

It had become increasingly likely that the project would be put on indefinite hold simply because the EU has bigger issues to resolve and even the larger countries, who have the least to lose in such a shake-up, can see the obvious pitfalls in such a plan. The strike by the French was probably unnecessary but it did provoke Brussels into producing an announcement that the issue would now be referred back for consultation (meaning a long period will elapse before even a draft plan is produced).

So, for the moment, it looks as if the Single European Sky project is a dead duck.

I doubt that UKIP have a view on the Single European Sky but this is one example of European integration that even the most anti-European politician could support since it is so obviously better than the current system. Ironically, it happens to be some of the most pro-European politicians who are reluctant to push it through to fruition. 

The German Disease

I would not want to appear anti-German – in fact, if anything, the reverse is the case. I have travelled and done business in Germany for many years and have a great admiration for the people and the country. However, I do get a little concerned about the tendency of the British to do themselves down and the, now almost universal belief that Germany is the epitome of European excellence.

In Britain, we accept that we are rather good at organising things like royal weddings and funerals for the famous but, we seem to accept as a given that we have labour problems and we are not very good at engineering and big projects.

On Monday, a large number of Lufthansa staff will again be going on strike for several hours. The airline is trying to get an injunction to have the strike stopped but, if it goes ahead, it is likely to ground much of the airline’s operations for most of the day. This follows a strike in March and a number of others by the airline’s staff over the last couple of years. Various strikes by security staff also brought a number of major German airports to a halt on several occasions earlier this year and Frankfurt was hit by a long period of strikes last year.

According to my rough calculation, German aviation has suffered much more from strikes in the last two years than Italy and, maybe, even Greece. Only Spain appears to have a worse record and that is down entirely to Iberia. The only wide-scale disruption in Britain has been occasional problems with UK Border staff and that has had a fairly minimal impact.

As for engineering excellence, you only have to look at the disaster of Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport to see the other side of the coin. 

Unfortunately, Germany’s very real problems are barely covered in the UK press. We prefer to live  with the comfortable myth of our own inferiority.

Germany has some quite serious economic and structural problems of its own and needs to modernise rather quickly. The Lufthansa strikes are largely due to the fact that management is trying to bring staff conditions to 21st century levels. It is far from being the only prestigious German company that needs serious changes if it is to continue.

Meanwhile, anyone requiring a safe and hassle-free connection in Europe might be better off using Rome or Athens rather than Frankfurt.


Is Germany becoming the new Greece?

Travel to and from Greece used to be a lottery – if an air traffic controllers’ strike didn’t get you, you might get stranded by a ferry strike or hit by a baggage-loaders strike on the way home. Strikes, often only for a few hours, were simply a matter of normal life. Greece is still capable of throwing the occasional general strike, but, since the crisis, it has to be said that travel in Greece is much smoother and your chances of getting where you need to go to on time are pretty good.

Unfortunately, Germany, is a very different issue. For almost two years, Lufthansa suffered a series of occasional strikes by staff as it tried to bring in new agreements. That issue appears to have been solved for the moment – though there are more cut-backs on the horizon so who knows what might happen. Last year also saw a prolonged strike by ground staff at Frankfurt which more or less closed the airport for several days. There were also a number of minor strikes at other airports. So far this year, there has been a strike of security staff at Hamburg and today a strike of airport workers at Dusseldorf and Cologne which has led to most flights being cancelled. These strikes get virtually no coverage in the UK.

It might be hard to believe but Germany is rapidly becoming Europe’s worst country for aviation-related strikes.

And, if the Greeks really want to rub it in, they could remind their German banking friends that at least they managed to open the very efficient new airport in Athens on time for the Greek Olympics. The management of the new airport in Berlin cannot even come up with a definitive date for when the much-delayed building will open.

Why I feel safer with Qantas than with Turkish Airlines

You will probably have read the story about a Qantas 767 being turned back as it was taxiing because of suspicions the Captain had been drinking. According to reports, the cabin crew were concered about the Captain’s behaviour, called the Operations Manager, the aircraft was ordered back to the stand and the Captain stood down from the flight.

Whilst one must wonder why the First Officer did not do anything, it was good that the cabin crew were able to raise the alarm. They called the airline’s Operation Centre in the full knowledge that, unless the call was entirely malicious, they would not face any disciplinary issue over delaying the flight. Qantas has a very strong safety culture which, like any well-run airline, encourages staff to voice any concerns they have about the operation. It also has strong unions.

In June, Turkish Airlines sent text messages sacking 345 staff (including pilots, cabin crew and engineers) for stopping work in protest against a law to make strikes at the airline illegal.

Turkish Airlines has been condemned around the world for its action and the International Transport Workers’ Federation has arranged protests in a number of capitals and is still trying to negotiate with the airline and the Turkish government.

No one likes airline strikes. Some unions, including those at Qantas, have shown a marked reluctance to move with the times but it is surely safer to fly with an airline where employees feel confident they will be protected when they have concerns about safety than with an airline that wants to ban strikes and will summarily dismiss anyone who attempts to protest.

European Business Travel in May

We are about to enter a perilous time for anyone planning a business trip to Europe.

I am not talking about the constant risk of short strikes by airport workers, air traffic controllers or general strikes but something much worse – public holidays.

May sees a bewildering range of official days off including religious holidays, traditional holidays and state days. To make it more complicated, some of these holidays are local, or not followed completely throughout a country. And, just to top it off, if one of these days occurs on a Thursday, you can be pretty sure that many people will follow the European tradition of “making the bridge” and not working on Friday either.

Anyone planning a trip in Europe over the next few weeks should consult their calendars carefully. If you want to make a good impression on a client, it is not a good first step to offer to meet him on a day when his office will be closed.

Air France requires “drastic cuts”

In order to restore profitability to the airline’s short and medium haul network, the airline is looking at cuts in expenses of at least 20%. 

Top of the list of items to cut are staff wages and numbers.

We would be very surprised if this can be accomplished without a period of prolonged industrial unrest.

The only good thing is that if the company does win the battle, it might result in much greater stability in the future. Air France has been at the mercy of its many unions for as long as anyone can remember. There is clearly no way Air France can continue with its current costs (and a 20% reduction still looks on the low side).

The battle could be long and difficult – and we would not rush to make arrangements to fly with Air France until an end is in sight.

Qantas Shut-down

Vicious, dishonest unions with their minds in a 1970′s time-warp versus a management with little integrity or competence all whipped up to a frenzy by a press that makes British tabloids appear the gold standard of responsible journalism.

Australia has got what it deserves.

This is a fight I would like both sides to lose.

Sadly, the only likely losers are the many decent staff at Qantas and the travelling public.

Virgin Atlantic Pilot Strike

Late on Thursday afternoon, Balpa announced they would put the latest proposal from the airline’s management to a ballot. This means that the threat of an immediate strike was removed.

Thousands of people about to travel with Virgin would have been worried about the announcement of strike dates and were anxiously awaiting news.

Balpa did its bit by putting out an announcement on its website. Virgin’s Twitter-person also confirmed the immediate threat of a strike had been lifted. The media left the story because they were far too obsessed with a much more important story (about themselves). Most Virgin passengers would turn to the airline’s website for news – but there wasn’t any.

Virgin do not like the idea of strikes and even mentioning them on their website appears to be anathema.

All responsible airlines have a section on their home page which gives details or links to information regarding possible travel disruption. Throughout the cabin crew dispute, British Airways kept its passengers informed of the current situation and a link was on the home page long after the dispute had been settled. Virgin prefer to keep their customers in the dark.

This does not show much respect for passengers.  The pilots were justifiably angry about the way they have been managed and broken promises regarding pay. Since 9/11 the airline has been losing ground commercially and its once famous service has slowly gone downhill. The airline appears over-managed in terms of numbers and salaries but seriously under-managed in terms of ability. None of this is helped by the fact that the airline constantly pleads poverty to its staff but boasts of its success to the public.

Morale within the airline is low. The company had an opportunity to make a fresh start with its pilots. There seem to be some doubts about the deal Balpa are offering to their members. A small amount of money and no change in the attitude of the company’s management to its pilots will not help very much. There is no guarantee that the pilots who voted almost unanimously for a strike will accept the current deal.

As we have said before, Virgin is in a serious rut. It needs new people at the top and – ideally – new owners. Staying as it is is not a long-term option.