By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Aer Lingus has been plunged into crisis by a series of industrial disputes that have caused days of travel chaos for passengers and the cancellation of all flights on Tuesday.
A threatened 24-hour strike by cabin crew led to the airline grounding 200 flights — the first total shutdown for Aer Lingus in decades.
The shutdown grounded all flight from the U.S. to Ireland and left the airline’s staff in the U.S. working frantically to reroute Ireland-bound passengers to Irish destinations via London with other carriers.
In a statement, the company said it was not in a position to operate any of its services due to the strike by cabin crew, who are members of the IMPACT trade union.
The grounding of the fleet, which was described as "disastrous" by the company, cost £2 million in lost revenue and affected more than 20,000 passengers.
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Emergency helplines were set up and the airline said passengers booked for Tuesday’s flights were being rescheduled to other days. Many transferred to competing airlines.
The 24-hour shutdown followed days of disruption and delays as industrial action by baggage handlers and catering staff hit flights.
Five separate disputes that have been simmering in the airline for some time are all boiling up together. The beleaguered airline is also facing higher oil price costs.
The mounting problems come as it tries to gear up to attract investors for a proposed floatation planned by the government for next year.
About 1,400 clerical staff have also voted overwhelmingly in favor of action to support their pay claim.
Pilots are seeking a doubling of their salary to bring them into line with British Airways. Aer Lingus has joined the Oneworld alliance, which includes American Airlines and British Airways.
The series of industrial relations difficulties involving pay claims, contracts of service, pensions, union recognition and interunion disputes between the IMPACT and SIPTU may delay privatization plans.
The airline needs at least £150 million to replace older aircraft and there are further cash demands if a modernization plan is to be implemented.
About 75 percent of planes are leased — compared with the industry norm of about 50:50 purchase and lease. EU rules do not allow a new subvention from the state.
Some of the trade union issues date back to the Cahill restructuring and productivity plan of the early 1990s when the airline was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Aer Lingus’ 420 catering staff took action on Friday that resulted in many flights taking off without hot meals. Their dispute centers on pay, staffing and productivity.
Two-hour stoppages by about 470 baggage handlers on Saturday, Sunday and Monday caused knock-on affects on flights throughout each day and also hit other airline passengers.
An Aer Lingus spokesman asked for customer "patience and understanding" as the airline worked to resolve the pay issues with staff.
He said the stoppage by cabin crew who are members of the IMPACT union "is unnecessary and serves only to harm the reputation of the business, the staff themselves and our customers."
John Behan, group change and restructuring director, said the cabin crew stoppage was not about pay but centered on the interunion row.
He said there had to be a joint negotiating process structured with the two unions.
"We cannot end up in a situation where we do one deal with IMPACT and another deal with SIPTU and we have a leap-frogging situation for ever and a day," Behan said. "It must be structured, otherwise there is no future for the business."