By Andrew Bushe and Ray O’Hanlon
DUBLIN — After a five-day shutdown that caused travel chaos for more than 100,000 people and severe damage to ailing Aer Lingus and the hard-pressed Irish tourism industry, scheduled services were getting back to normal this week.
The state flag carrier’s management and 530 pilots accepted a deal brokered during 11 hours of talks on future work conditions and rosters during a special emergency weekend session of the Labor Court.
Full trans-Atlantic services into and out of New York, Boston and Chicago were set to resume Wednesday, with the Los Angeles service resuming Thursday.
An initial “ferry” flight flew into Boston Tuesday with flight and cabin crews for the first eastbound flights from U.S. cities to Ireland in a week. More than 100 passengers were also flying on the Boston-bound Airbus.
“We are obviously very relieved and will be working quickly to get everything back to normal over the Atlantic,” Brian Murphy, Aer Lingus vice president for sales and marketing North America, said Tuesday.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Questions, meanwhile, were being asked about the failure of industrial-relations machinery to head off the dispute and stop it from escalating into a bruising bank holiday weekend shutdown that is expected to end up costing Aer Lingus up to euro 12 million.
The dispute erupted last week when pilots staged a one-day walkout in protest over company plans to change various work rules in accordance with the company’s survival plan.
The company responded by refusing to resume flights after the day-long protest, this on the grounds that it had no guarantee that there would not be further walkouts.
A critical point of disagreement between pilots and management concerned crew rosters and minimum rest periods for crews after flights.
Rest periods for pilots vary depending on the destination of each flight. Pilots voted Monday to accept a complex compromise formula from the Labor Court that would reduce minimum rest periods in some cases, but not always to the extent envisioned by management.
The settlement formula had a clear element of face-saving to it and just enough wriggle room to satisfy both sides.
Even before the dispute, the 95 percent state-owned Aer Lingus was racking up heavy losses. Its future survival and how it can receive an injection of development cash from a partial sell-off to another airline will be a top priority for the new government.
The impact of last year’s foot-and-mouth disease crisis and the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. sent losses at Aer Lingus soaring for 2001 as passenger numbers plummeted.
This double blow also resulted in a mothballing of Aer Lingus services to Baltimore/Washington D.C. and Newark airports.
The carrier lost euro 140 million last year and had targeted losses of euro 27 million for the whole of this year. However, it lost euro 20 million in the first four months of the year and the cost of the dispute has increased the hemorrhage of cash.
After the pilots “overwhelmingly accepted” the settlement proposals on a show of hands at a mass meeting on Monday, the airline began limited operations to Britain and Europe on Tuesday.
The pilots had been taken off the payroll when their 24-hour strike began last Thursday. However, they will now be paid for all the days of the shutdown with the exception of their one-day stoppage.
Tourism and business spokesmen have, meanwhile, strongly criticized the lengthy grounding of the fleet, saying the prolonged shutdown had been “hugely damaging” and could affect “people’s perception” of Ireland overseas in the long term.
Aer Lingus’ corporate affairs director, Dan Loughrey, said the dispute resulted from “strongly held positions” between the company and the pilots going back several months. The shutdown had been “very regrettable.”
The airline refused to resume operation’s after the one-day strike until the pilots accepted the survival plan’s working conditions package. The union described the decision as “bizarre” and said it was a lockout by management.
Michael Landers, representing the pilots branch of the trade union IMPACT, said the pilots had always maintained that the dispute could be resolved only by talks and that the suspension of pilots and grounding of the fleet had been unnecessary.
He claimed the Labor Court recommendation had endorsed the position of the pilots on rest periods and rosters.
The survival plan involves over 2,000 job losses, pay freezes for the 4,000 remaining staff and major cost savings. Most of the measures have been implemented by other categories of airline staff.