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Thu, Aug 23, 2001 - Page 19 News List

Cathay Pacific's got a sinking feeling

As the war of words between the airline's pilots and its management continues to escalate, profits and customer confidence continue to slide

DPA , HONG KONG

John Findlay, general secretary of the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association, wipes the sweat from his brow after a meeting with Cathay Pacific pilots yesterday where they voted comprehensively to step up their industrial action as an acrimonious pay and benefits dispute looked set to intensify.

PHOTO: AFP

"Let's get this airline back to how it used to be -- the best airline in the world to work for and the best airline in the world for passengers to fly on."

These are the words John Findlay, the general secretary of the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association, spoke yesterday after announcing that Cathay Pacific pilots had agreed to step up industrial action in their long-running dispute with management.

Taking his words at face value, it would seem Findlay shares a common goal with management. That being to work for the future success of Cathay Pacific.

However, the routes each side in this dispute believes the airline should take to reach this goal couldn't be further apart.

To the pilots, it is a route which involves improving industrial relations, pay raises of up to 32 percent and a new roster system to replace the current one they claim is unworkable.

For Cathay Pacific, getting there can only be achieved by retaining competitiveness in the face of an economic downturn and that means standing firm against the union and its "unreasonable" pay demand.

With the two sides very much deadlocked, it looks like Cathay Pacific is going only one direction at the moment -- nowhere.

So how did Hong Kong's flagship carrier, one of the world's most profitable airlines, find itself at daggers drawn with its pilots.

Squabbles between the pilots and management over money are not new and have become a regular event over the past ten years. It is something the Hong Kong public has come to expect.

But this dispute is not about money, say the union leaders. It's about working conditions or more precisely a roster system which relies heavily on standby duties which disrupt pilot's lives and often leaves them not knowing which flight they are taking charge of until they reach the airport.

"These rosters are not working and haven't worked since they were last forced on the pilots in 1994," said John Findlay. "They are just chaotic, there are scheduling problems because of them and the pilots' lives are disrupted considerably."

The two sides have held more than 50 meetings to try to solve their differences. In June, the labor department moved as mediator but to no avail and the pilots voted for industrial action. The gauntlet was off.

On July 3, when the management failed to respond to a deadline issued by the union for data on the rosters, the pilots began their "work to rule" attempting to disrupt flights by paying meticulous attention to safety regulations and procedures.

The result has been successful to a degree -- about 26 flights a week were cancelled in the first month of the action. Many more have been delayed.

Cathay responded by chartering aircraft from China and by dropping some of its less profitable destinations. A week into the strike, they sacked 49 pilots and imposed a new pay and conditions package on pilots which give pay rises of up to 9 percent -- well below the 32 percent demanded.

By last week, all of the chartered planes had been returned. Cathay declared disruptions "effectively over" calling the "work to rule" nothing more than a "minor nuisance."

But for all its defiant words, the airline is suffering and suffering at a time when it cannot afford to lose money or lose face.

The economic slow-down has already eaten into profits which were down 40 percent in the first six months of 2001.

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