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Editorial Aer Lingus turbulence

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Aer Lingus is facing a winter of discontent at the very time when it should be preparing to fly above the clouds. Only last month, former Heineken chief executive Michael Foley returned to Dublin from the U.S. to become group chief executive of the airline. With the state-owned carrier preparing to go public next year, he could well become the company’s best-known chief executive to date. Turbulence, however, is in the air just as he takes off on his Aer Lingus career. He almost hasn’t had time to fasten his seat belt.

Aer Lingus’ current problems take on particular significance at this time because of the planned initial public offering. But before the IPO roadshow hits places like London or New York, Foley, who’s expected back in New York this Friday night to be honored by the Irish Business Organization, clearly has serious indsutrial-relations problems to address.

Although much attention will be focused on how any developments within Aer Lingus might affect future investor confidence in the company, it’s the flying public — tourists, business people and families — that is at present the airline’s main constituency. On Tuesday, that group got a shock dose of how internal company problems can affect them when more than 1,000 cabin crew workers held a one-day stoppage. As a result, all flights, about 200, were grounded. More than 20,000 passengers were stranded, resulting in an expected loss of company revenue of more than £2 million. More disruptions are apparently on the way.

Cabin crew members are not the only section of Aer Lingus’ staff who are unhappy. Baggage handlers and in-flight caterers staged two-hour stoppages on Sunday and Monday. Clerical workers are also expected to take action over pay, while pilots too are seeking a large pay rise.

Solving the pay issue with the cabin crew is complicated by the fact that there is a separate dispute over which union represents the workers.

Overall, more than 3,000 employees of Aer Lingus are now in dispute with the company, a less than ideal situation, to say the least.

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At a time when the Irish economy is booming, when tourism from the U.S. is at a record high, and when the strength of the dollar is, in the words of the Irish Tourist Board’s new man in New York, Jim McGuigan, "a very positive factor for U.S. visitors going to Ireland," how disappointing it is that union unrest threatens much that has been gained in recent years.

Granted, this is the first time Aer Lingus has had to cancel flights due to union action in more than 20 years. But the goings-on at Aer Lingus are a matter of concern on a wider scale. With Ireland’s inflation rate now accelerating, there are likely to be demands from other sectors for wage increases. Indeed, only a few months ago, the government faced the wrath of the country’s nurses, who were angry over pay, conditions and staff shortages.

A debate is also waging over the wisdom of the government allowing more tax breaks in the coming budget, the fear being that more disposable income will lead to greater spending, thus feeding the spiral that could, at least in theory, burst the Celtic Tiger bubble.

In the meantime, one can only sympathize with those Aer Lingus passengers who had made plans to fly with Aer Lingus this week. As in most strike situations, regardless of the validity or otherwise of the strikers’ demands, ordinary people — on both sides of the Atlantic — were the victims.

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