10/10/2007

Plot Thickens As Aer Lingus Pilots Play Their Ace

Despite the suspension of five pilots at Aer Lingus, the threat of a possible strike has receded.

Management carried out its threat to begin suspending pilots refusing to train new recruits in a dispute over pay and conditions for the airline's planned new hub at Belfast.

However, in a surprise move, members of the Aer Lingus pilots' union Impact have said they will resign en masse from training duties instead, noting that training was optional and lay beyond pilots' core flying duties.

Almost 40 senior pilots have started resigning from training duties to avoid the risk of suspension for refusal to train new recruits for the Northern Ireland operation.

A spokesman told the BBC they would not be goaded into strike action, which he said appeared to be what the company's management wanted.

Instead, the Irish Airline Pilots' Association (Ialpa) which is part of Impact wants to negotiate further over the terms and conditions for Belfast staff, with lower pay and especially the less attractive pension plan topping the agenda.

However, the airline has said negotiations are over and it wants to set up its new hub north of the border employing staff on conditions "with reference to local market conditions".

However, the union realises that the loss of this in-house training capability - which they claim is a regulatory requirement of Irish aviation authorities - would hit the airline hard as it gears up for its new operation, while immunising pilots from disciplinary action.

They are walking a tight-rope though, as many staff are also shareholders following last year's privatisation of what was previously Ireland's national airline.

Their own investments will be damaged if overall financial health is affected by a dispute which could weaken the share price.

At the same time, fearful that staff on lower pay and pensions at a base only 110 miles just up the road from Dublin could eventually reduce their own conditions, pilots are also anxious to retain their own conditions, which are considerably better than those enjoyed by staff in rival Ryanair - which is ironically also a major shareholder in the newly privatised airline.

Aer Lingus management is therefore confident in confronting the pilots and also telling other staff it will not honour a pay award supposed to be paid as part of an Irish government-brokered national pay deal, unless staff accept the airline's cost reduction proposals.

With the new Belfast hub due to open in early December, the latest surprise move by pilots places more pressure on management to resolve the increasingly bitter dispute, and meet its deadline for take-off from Belfast, which is already being widely promoted in the Province.

(BMcC)

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