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BA 'risks pilot dispute on EU-US routes'


British Airways is risking industrial action from its pilots over plans to fly direct between continental Europe and the US, the Financial Times reports. The board will meet on Thursday, ahead of the release of interim results on Friday, to discuss the initiative amid growing signs of pilot unrest about the plan.

Project Lauren, as the EU - US flights project is codenamed, is an important element of the airline's response to the 'open skies' treaty that comes into effect next March. This will allow European airlines to fly to any destination in the US from anywhere in Europe, with the same allowance in reverse for US airline. Most significantly, it has ended the closed shop at Heathrow, BA's main base.

BA is eager to take advantage of business opportunities offered by the treaty, which comes into effect at the end of March, particularly as it is likely to face increased competition at Heathrow. It plans to operate premium class only - understood to mean premium economy and business class only - flights from several European cities to the US, initially to its main US hub at New York's JFK.

BA's pilots broadly support Project Lauren, which would see BA set up a subsidiary airline that would fly from cities such as Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels to the US. But they are concerned that the new subsidiary will employ pilots under different labour conditions from those negotiated for flying out of the UK and could siphon traffic away from mainline BA operations and deprive existing pilots of work. Irish flag carrier Aer Lingus has just settled a similar dispute with its pilots over its new base in Belfast.

The pilots have offered to negotiate terms and conditions for the subsidiary, but the newspaper reports that BA is seeking to break away from the restrictions of its current labour agreements, just as Aer Lingus did. Like their Irish counterparts, the British Air Line Pilots' Association is believed to be ready to take industrial action if the issue cannot be resolved.

Balpa has written to Willie Walsh, BA chief executive, insisting that BA pilots be allowed to apply for any position in Lauren ahead of direct-entry recruits and that Lauren pilots should be on the BA pilots' seniority list. The dispute was settled amicably in Ireland, and it is feasible that this BA dispute could follow the same settlement terms, which saw the airline get to employ pilots on new terms, the union get to negotiate future pay and conditions and existing pilots get to apply for the new jobs with more favourable transfer in and transfer out rules.

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