Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. Photo: Afpwong.

LONDON – Virgin Atlantic (VS) pilots in the trade union Professional Pilot’s Union (PPU) are to be balloting strike action over union recognition.Airways has given this issue an inside look on all perspectives the best as possible to determine what the issue at hand is.

The PPU In context

The PPU was formed in 2011 following a dispute with Virgin Atlantic where pilots felt poorly represented by the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) over the issue of working conditions.

Virgin Atlantic G-VNEW Boeing 787-9 arriving at Heathrow

Around 400 out of 800 pilots currently flying for Virgin Atlantic are aligned with the views of the PPU and its membership. The other 400 are either non-unionized or are with BALPA.

The PPU argue for recognition because BALPA is the only union being included in the airline’s benefits review, despite the PPU having a larger number of Virgin Atlantic pilots as members.

The union also believes that working conditions need to be improved, especially as getting an Airline Transport Pilot’s License (ATPL) can take around 18 months to complete and requires at least GBP £60,000-90,000 of personal funding. 

Back in November 2017, the PPU sent out an open letter to Virgin Atlantic stating that they would be “prepared to explore options that could respect the choice that VAA has now made” in return for union recognition. 

The open letter also argued that Virgin Atlantic is misrepresenting the PPU’s aims regarding the requirement for it to derecognize BALPA even though the PPU doesn’t want it to happen.

“There appears to be much misunderstanding, and therefore continued misrepresentation, of the position of the PPU, regarding the VAA requirement for it not to derecognize BALPA,” it said.

The letter continued by saying that “it is unacceptable to have a single, preferred solution imposed on us,” referring to the fact that, as an independent and certified trade union, they need to be more involved in the decision-making process of workers in the company. 

The rest of the letter produces that same view throughout, even with the indirect usage of strike ballots, in which is going to happen over the next few days/weeks.

The PPU View…

Airways got in touch with spokesperson and former Virgin Atlantic veteran Steve Johnson who gave us some insight into the company and the current disputes.

Johnson is an ex-VS captain of 23 years who has seen the style and management changes of the carrier change over that period.

He labelled the management structure as “bullish” and “arrogant” claiming that this was the reason that the PPU was formed, out of a “significant level of frustration” with the company. 

“Our efforts to take part in the Benefits Review have been repeatedly resisted by the company”, he said.

“Our members have mandated the PPU to negotiate, but for the last two years it appears the company has chosen to ignore the majority of its pilots and deal only with a union (BALPA) that speaks for the minority.”

According to the retired Captain, “that’s a fundamental mistake.”

“Mr. Branson says on his recruitment website that ‘VA isn’t a company that just talks about putting employees first’, and he adds that ‘VA simply wouldn’t exist without the energy, the determination, the wit and the wisdom of our people’. It’s time his senior management acknowledges that, talks to us and halts this review,” he notes.

This formation was over a pay dispute with BALPA that was rejected by the airline, which even had 98% support via a ballot.

As a result of disenfranchisement, many members of BALPA in Virgin Atlantic migrated over to PPU in the hopes that something can be done. 

Johnson thinks that disenfranchisement is the to-go strategy for Virgin Atlantic in the dealing of this situation.

The repeat of disenfranchisement in BALPA could happen again if discussions with PPU come to stalemates or just does not happen, meaning that they would migrate back to BALPA, a union Virgin Atlantic currently supports. 

The PPU is, therefore, hoping that BALPA will align themselves with the same position of opposition and that actual negotiations with the PPU involved will happen. 

Currently, Virgin is looking at a benefits review, which will see pilots experience a slash in their pension packages and cuts to essential protections that keep them safe.

The PPU’s reasoning for strike action, as a result, will be mainly over union recognition as well as the scrapping of the benefits review as an added bonus.

Johnson concluded that the PPU should be involved in the talks and that these benefit reviews are to bring down premium costs and homogenize pilots to the bare minimum. 

“The review is a cost-cutting exercise, pure and simple,” he said.

“At a time when the industry is experiencing a global shortage of pilots, new recruits – who would have already invested tens of thousands in training costs to fly for Virgin – will now be offered a significantly reduced deal.”

“This will affect new pilots and their families the most.”

The Opposing Views…

As expected, Virgin Atlantic has responded to this via its CEO, Craig Kreeger. He said that the company wants its entire workforce to be ‘as red on the inside as they are on the outside’, in an attempt to call for unity.

However, Airways got back in touch with Virgin Atlantic and asked for further comment on the issue, to which we received a response stating that “We have not received statutory notification from the PPU of a ballot on strike action. We are currently working closely with our recognized trade unions in relation to a proposal regarding a review of our benefits.”

This response suggests that the airline is not implementing an attack on the PPU, but does highlight the case in point for the union. Virgin Atlantic is not working with the PPU but they need to before strike action takes place. 

However, moments after that statement was given to Airways on November 12, the PPU sent out a notice of ballot for strike action.

Strike action in this case for Virgin Atlantic would be dangerous because if over half of its pilots are to strike, then it will cost the carrier money it doesn’t have.

2017 saw the carrier record a £28.4 million pre-tax loss as well as a £51 million reverse on a profit of £23 million in 2016.

Airways also got in touch with BALPA for a comment on this issue and whether they have experienced the leaving out of PPU in the consultation process. At the time of writing, they have yet to provide a statement.

What Next for Virgin?

Now that the ballot has been put out to members of the PPU, time will tell what the vote outcome will be.

It is likely that a strike action will be favorable, especially if the pilots wish to be listened to by Virgin Atlantic.

It is unclear, however, how long these strikes will go on for if they are supported by the members, but it could produce some significant disruption to the airline’s operations. 

In the PPU’s case, this is something that will be fought on until disenfranchisement begins.

In the case of the pilots in the membership, it is the massive hope that reform can be implemented before this does indeed occur.