United Kingdom

British Airways facing backlash over claims it abused furlough scheme

British Airways could be stripped of lucrative landing slots at Heathrow Airport after it was accused of abusing the Government's furloughing scheme.

Britain's flag carrier is facing a growing backlash from MPs, ministers and union leaders after claiming taxpayer subsidies to pay the wages of 23,000 staff, shortly before announcing 12,000 job cuts.

The move, which was criticised by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week, could now prove costly for Britain's flag carrier.

BA is facing a growing backlash from MPs, ministers and union leaders after claiming taxpayer subsidies to pay the wages of 23,000 staff, shortly before announcing 12,000 job cuts

Aviation minister Kelly Tolhurst yesterday voiced concerns about BA's use of the Job Retention Scheme and pledged to review the allocation of landing slots at Heathrow, which has given it a stranglehold at Britain's busiest airport.

Speaking on behalf of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, she said the scheme 'was not designed for taxpayers to fund the wages of employees, only for those companies to put the same staff on notice of redundancy during the furlough period'.

Asked whether airline slots will be transferred to airlines that are taking on workers, Tolhurst replied: 'I want to ensure the slots allocation process encourages competition and provides connectivity, so this is something that I will be looking at.'

The minister was responding to an urgent question in Parliament from Huw Merriman, a Tory MP and chairman of the House of Commons transport committee.

Echoing concerns raised by the Unite and GMB unions, he accused the airline of 'effectively sacking' its entire workforce of 42,000 people and trying to rehire the 30,000 who survive the job cuts on 'inferior terms'.

The airline has submitted notices to staff and unions, warning them that their pay, perks and benefits are under review.

Merriman said: 'It's ethically outrageous that our national flag-carrier is doing this at a time when the nation is at its weakest and when we expect the country to do its bit.' 

The senior MP then urged the Government to 'use its full weight to stop unscrupulous employers from using this pandemic as a chance to slash terms and conditions'.

He said the Department for Transport should ask the Civil Aviation Authority to launch an 'urgent review' into reallocating lucrative landing slots at Heathrow, and giving them to airlines that want to expand.

And he called for a Government review into the Job Retention Scheme to stop employers furloughing staff at the expense of the taxpayer while simultaneously putting those same employees on redundancy notice.

BA occupies just over half the landing slots at Heathrow. These slots, which give an airline the right to take off and land at a certain time, can be worth several millions of pounds at Heathrow.

The aviation industry has been brought to its knees by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has grounded planes and devastated the global tourism industry.

A succession of major airlines, including Easyjet and Virgin Atlantic, have also announced mass redundancies shortly after furloughing thousands of jobs.

When it announced the job cuts in April, BA warned it does not expect demand for air travel to return to 2019 levels before 2023.

Calling for a review into BA's landing slots at Heathrow, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: 'No other employer has threatened to effectively fire and rehire its workforce.'

But in a letter to staff, BA chief executive Alex Cruz hit back, stressing: 'I want to save as many jobs as possible.'

He said the Government's decision to enforce a 14-day quarantine on anyone travelling to Britain from Monday has 'dealt another blow to our industry'.

He added: 'Bizarrely, the unions are now campaigning to have Heathrow slots taken away from British Airways.

'I don't need to tell you that every slot lost will lead to jobs in BA being permanently lost.'

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