Archive for November 2010

BA dispute – Pride and promises

I did not think I would be commenting on this subject again but, instead of fading into apathy and compromise it is back again. BA made another of its final offers and the union involved was expected to ballot the cabin crew. But the unions did an about turn and has delayed the ballot despite admitting that it was the best deal they could achieve through negotiation. Why? Because I believe they think it would be too damaging for the union.

The crazy thing is that the main disagreements that caused the strike have mainly gone away in that BA has won the essential core of disputed issues. All that is left is the argument concerning staff travel perks. What is the problem? Well, in précis BA gave advance notice that all striking cabin crew would lose these perks. From what I understand the union went to the crew and told them to take no notice as they would get the concessions back for them within the dispute settlement. Partly on this basis enough of the crew voted to strike.

We now have a very large, proud and, in my view, arrogant union that promised something they are having difficulty delivering. Initially BA said a firm no to any kind of renewal of perks to strikers. They pointed out that they told the union at the time they would not move on this once the discounts were forfeited. This silly issue involving a reasonably small number of cabin crew now reached a disproportionate level of intensity purely because the union had dug itself a big negotiating hole and jumped in it. A perfect example of the expression ‘pride comes before a fall’.

And then BA relented. Well, not exactly relented but at least came up with a compromise of sorts. They offered to give the perks back to strikers. But there is a catch as they were not going to give this up for nothing further in return. BA have demanded a guarantee of no industrial action for at least 3 years and also any current legal action by the unions to be stopped.

They then went further to say all strikers would lose their seniority status for these discount and standby tickets until 2013. This is quite ‘serious’ as seniority and years served determines where you are in the queue for these tickets. To places like Barbados there can be scores of crew standing by. In fact, on one memorable occasion BA had to send a 747 to Barbados purely to pick up stranded standby staff. The strikers do not want to lose their status but BA knows that this is the only thing they can do to appease all those majority of staff who did not strike. After all these loyal staff would be pretty mad if they saw the strikers getting away with it by winning this point.

So, the soap opera continues. The argument that led to the strike have to a great extent gone. Instead a bi-product of the negotiations may cause yet another strike possibly some time in March 2011. At least Christmas is safe…I think. The union will ultimately ballot the staff once more but will not recommend the latest BA offer which they are now saying is “a step too far.” This sounds a bit different to their earlier comment about it being “the very best available through negotiation”.

What a fuss over a few cheap staff tickets. However daft I do not see where resolution will come from without a major and damaging stand down by the union. They know that this is no longer really about tickets. It is about the credibility of the union movement in the UK. What a mighty hole they dug for themselves over such an unimportant argument

My life in Toilets - Part 2

Not only did I risk a criminal record and incarceration in Australia as a result of a pressing need to relieve myself but I have also found such a simple function nearly disastrous elsewhere too.

A prime example was when I travelled to the north of England to meet my future wife’s family for the first time. I knew it was going to be difficult anyway because they viewed anybody born south of Sheffield with acute suspicion and prejudice. I, having not even been born in the UK let alone Yorkshire was not considered human by them let alone suitable marriage material for their daughter.

I had to make a good impression so I rehearsed the things I would say and the complements I would pay to her mother. We arranged to make our arrival gradual by stopping off first at her sister in Malvern so she could phone ahead and say how nice I was. Or that was the plan anyway.

We arrived in Malvern to a warm welcome which immediately put me at my ease. However, shortly after arriving I felt the need to pay a visit to the smallest room in the house. They had kids and their main toilet was full of their stuff so I was led to the newly decorated en-suite bedroom and invited to use that one and, having paid the right complements about the decor and carpeting I settled down.

How can I explain this? It was a ‘big’ visit is all I will say. Having finished I pulled the flush and went to the basin to wash my hands. Suddenly in the mirror I saw water. The toilet had blocked. There was water and everything else pouring onto the carpet.

How do you go to someone you have just met and explain that you have made their toilet overflow? Well I had to and mine host spent the next hour or so with a coat. hanger, mop and rubber gloves clearing things up. The news had spread by the time we reached Judith’s parents and I saw the look of fear on their faces when I asked where their toilet was. Relations deteriorated even further during our short stay.

You get toilets in all shapes and sizes as you travel around the world on business and many are strange indeed. Like the rotating, self cleaning seat in Athens and the Tokyo Karaoke bar whose loo had cowboy saloon type doors so anybody walking by could see all of you sitting there apart from your groin area. Made it hard to concentrate especially when having a wipe!

Then there are those hotel toilets they insist on placing directly behind the door. I came back to my hotel from a late dinner in Paris not that long ago and went straight into such a bathroom. I hung my jacket on the hook behind the door and, after my bath went to bed. On opening the door the next morning I found my jacket had fallen off the shallow knob on the door and dropped into the open toilet. My first thought was 'had I pulled the handle before going to bed'. Thankfully I had and after 45 minutes with the hotel hair dryer I made my meeting although I did get some very funny looks.

I got some even stranger looks a few weeks later. I had got a job with the AA and was meeting a new and very formidable senior director at their Bristol regional headquarters. He was an ex military man and liked everything in its place including more junior visitors. On arrival some of my colleagues arranged a buffet lunch for me which was very kind. We loaded our plates from the table and sat on chairs to eat from our laps. Unbeknown to me a portion of butter was stuck to the bottom of my plate and had transferred in a greasy mess to my trousers.

Oh no I thought. What am I going to do? 10 minutes away from meeting someone even fiercer than my mother-in-law and my trousers were a mess. I shot into the nearby gentlemen’s toilet, soaked my handkerchief in scalding soapy water and rubbed the stain as hard as I could. It mainly spread the problem but then worse was going to come. There were no linen or paper towels but I needed to get it dry.

All they had was a wall mounted warm air hand dryer. I could not take my trousers off in such a public place so I tried to think of another solution. I found out that if I put my dry leg over the top of the dryer, an elbow on the sink next to it and a hand gripping a sink tap I could raise my body off the ground and dangle the wet trouser leg under the dryer. I was in the process of adopting this position when the door opened.

A very distinguished man walked in. he stopped mid stride, his jaw dropped and he muttered ‘what the hell?’ before turning on his heel and walking out. When I finished I went to the regional director’s office and met the great man. I had met him a few minutes earlier. He was the man who quite literally had nearly caught me with my pants down!

Pets Abroad 2 – Carnage in Kitwe

You may remember I told you about our Kent farm cat Sooty (he was black) and how we took him with us when we got posted to Kitwe in Zambia. I explained how this small dinky looking fiend incarnate made himself quickly at home by terrorising our house staff and laying waste to the neighbourhood. In the next few paragraphs I will tell you more of his antics and how he became known within the community as ‘Madam’s Devil Cat’.

I preffered ‘devil cat’ to our house servants name for him which was ‘Madam’s pussy’. It started to get embarrassing as Silas would frequently burst into the lounge in front of guests and say “I cannot find Madam’s pussy” which raised many a guffaw. “I last saw it in Madam’s bedroom” he would continue.

Silas and I had a number of issues about who he should call what. For instance he would insist on calling me Bwana which made me feel like some kind of ancient white hunter. I frequently had conversations with him about it which went something like this:

Silas I cannot find Madam’s pussy Bwana.
Me. How many times have I told you? Stop calling me Bwana.
Silas. Ya Bwana
Me. I want you to call me sir.
Silas. Ya Bwana sir.
Me. No! Not Bwana sir. Just sir.
Do you understand?
Silas. Ya Bwana!
Me. Give me strength.

After a couple of weeks Sooty was beginning to feel at home. Despite being black and furry he seemed completely oblivious to the incredible heat although he did start to pant like a dog. He set about establishing himself as the top cat in the neighbourhood and rarely a day went past without hearing the sound of yowling, spitting and barking as he wreaked his havoc. He further amused himself by ambushing our gardener Patrick by lying on top of the garden archways and hurling himself on Patrick’s head as he walked underneath. The poor man would then run around the garden shrieking until Sooty stopped chewing and jumped off.

Another problem Sooty caused involved venomous snakes. I remember he found one in the garden where it had nested under the pool pump cover. He used to kill them but sometimes, as in this case, he wanted to show off by bringing it in and dropping the live and angry serpent on the lounge rug. Everybody jumped up onto the furniture as the thing thrashed around while Sooty sat a safe distance away licking his bottom and grooming himself in general.

The uproar brought Silas in. “Oh Bwana” he cried. Before I could say ‘don’t call me Bwana’ he was out the door. He returned a few seconds later with Patrick’s machete and chopped its head off. We had to live with a stained rug with a four inch cut through it for the rest of our stay

When he was not eating creatures such as insects, spiders, geckos, snakes (he always left the head) and other such things he insisted on Whiskas tinned cat food which we brought in on our trips back from holidays in England. It created great interest at customs. The officials saw the pictures on the tin and became convinced that it was tinned cat. “What does cat taste like they asked? I had trouble getting through to them that it was tuna jelly meat Whiskas for cats not of cat but with little success. In order to get it through customs I had to leave a few tins for them. They told me afterwards that cat tasted delicious and quite a bit like fish!

We only actually lost Sooty once. I reminded Silas of our agreement which was effectively ‘no cat equals no job’ for him and the neighbourhood was mobilised. Things looked bleak and we became resigned to the likelihood that Sooty was probably in some cooking pot or had fallen prey to one of the local guard dogs who harboured a grudge against him.

Suddenly we heard some ghostly wailing and an urgent cry of “Bwana, Bwana I have found Madam’s pussy!” We ran around the side of the house to find Silas leaping up and down pointing to a large diameter storm drainpipe where the yowling was coming from. Sooty was stuck in the ‘U’ bend. We had to tear the pipe off the wall to get to him. When it was horizontal a large lizard shot out with Sooty in hot pursuit. It ran up the wall and so did Sooty and the lizard was no more. He ran up the slope of the roof with the lizard’s tail hanging out the side of his mouth and on reaching the peak evacuated his bowels in shock.

In all the years we had Sooty it was his one and only showing of fear. Unfortunately it was one to remember as, for the next six months the pyramid of excrement stayed there until the monsoons washed it away. Despite everything he was a lovely cat and one you could definitely call a ‘character’, although many in Zambia did not share my admiration for the ‘Devil Cat’.

My Life in Toilets – Part 1

Yes I know…a strange title but stay with me.
In the process of writing these blog ‘memoires' I started to realise how often the word toilet was coming up. This sounds odd to me too but I began to realise that toilets had played an important (albeit traumatic) part in my career over the years.

Some of you who may have read my rambling will remember how I fought an Australian in a Sydney W.C. and a large female attendant in a toilet next to the Paris perimeter motorway but these are just small skirmishes in my war with public conveniences of the world. I have fought with and in toilets across all continents and I feel I owe it to posterity to clear my conscience now as I lurch towards my twilight years. After all, how many people can say they have lost business, ruined relationships and been arrested whilst simply trying to relieve myself.

My most disastrous first memory was when I got arrested for indecent exposure in Perth, Western Australia. It was an awful misunderstanding. I had flown to the other side of the world to visit my then girlfriend who had been ‘forced’ to emigrate with her parents a few weeks previously. I travelled on airline staff tickets and it took me two sleepless days to make the journey. I found her address which was in the suburbs of the city and presented myself on her doorstep unannounced. Her new boyfriend answered the door!

What has this terrible tale of a jetlagged and broken heart got to do with toilets? That came later when she, her new boyfriend and her parents felt obliged to take me along to a dinner dance they were about to leave for. I was clearly as welcome as haemarrhoids .We sat at a big table with huge flagons of cold Swan Lager in the middle and I sat and watched the lovely Sue dancing with her new love so closely that you could not squeeze a cigarette paper between them.

There was nothing for it so I turned to drink. After consuming one flagon by myself I felt the most excruciating need to relieve myself so I stood up and made my way unsteadily across to the corner of the room where the toilets were. It was all a blur to me but apparently I first went into the ladies and got ejected. I went through another door which said ‘MEN’ and there was a further plain door on the left going into the toilet itself and another on the right that provided access to another entertainment room.

By this stage I really feared I was not going to make it in time so I started unzipping and preparing as I walked. I was out and ready as I turned right and fell into the other function room where they were celebrating a golden wedding. There was uproar. One of the people there was an off duty police officer and he immediately pinned me to the wall, read me my rights and arrested me for indecent exposure.

He phoned for back-up and a car and marched me out onto the pub forecourt whilst I continued trying to pull up my zip. The zip got caught (some of my male readers may understand the pain) which made things even worse. To cap it all they would not let me go back in so I had to pee against the wall which added another charge to my sheet.

My lovely ex and her family knew nothing of this until they got a call from the police station and an order to come and collect me. By this time I had been able to explain my jet lag, tiredness and misery and they took pity on me after having a good laugh at my expense. Needless to say I was disowned by my reluctant hosts who drove me to Perth Airport where I spent the night in the departures hall.

Whenever I go back to Australia I always wonder if one day I will stand at the immigration desk and this arrest with reason will flash up on the screen. So far so good but there is more to come in ‘Toilets 2’ the sequel!

GDS/Airline issue. Coming to a head?

This whole issue is not only becoming a little tedious but also beginning to build like a volcano about to erupt. We have had quite a few years of the dormant stage but now the tremors are getting longer, bigger and more frequent.

The first sign of life started 5/6 years ago when airlines like British Airways started charging TMCs fees for booking their lower promotional or short haul flights via the GDS. Their logic seemed to be that, as their profit margins were lower then so should their cost of sale. The point having been made most of those airlines then went to their top TMCs and found a way of giving most of the charges back. Meanwhile the GDS also went to the same all important TMCs and compensated them for the cost through their incentive agreements.

Are there GDS/TMC incentive agreements? Yes there are. Or certainly were and I am practically sure this has not changed in the last couple of years. You see, despite what you may read in the AA Distribution Blog the GDS are locked in a battle with not just the airlines but each other as they make sorties into others markets and buy themselves in. Alongside this all GDS want to be sure that they preserve their near monopoly over unbiased content within the business travel sector, and they are prepared to pay to do so.

These GDS incentives must drive the airlines mad. A key reason for taking commissions and some incentives away from TMCs was because those TMCs used the money to pay their own incentives to clients as well as subsidise necessary unprofitable transactions (rail, car etc.) elsewhere. Now they are dealing with the same thing with the GDS to whom they pay a very large fee only to see big chunks of it passed down the supply chain in incentives to win/keep business.

The problem is how they solve the problem. Like commissions and everything else whatever they do is going to have implications down the line. If you take something away from any intermediary the balance will be rectified somewhere else. Rather like pressing a balloon full of water and finding it bulges elsewhere to compensate for the displacement. The only way cost can be truly saved is if what is taken away does not need to be replaced and we are not quite there yet in travel however much the airlines wish it so.

There has been one major tremor which happened shortly before I retired. The not so shy and retiring Lufthansa decided to break the mould but only in their home market where they enjoyed an unusually dominant position. Much to the howls of GDS, TMCs, corporations et al they started making bookings more expensive if they were not transacted direct or through the certain GDS who had reduced their fees. They ‘enjoyed’ mixed fortunes and their success, or otherwise, depends on who you talk to. From what I saw they lost significant business in certain sectors, antagonised people who were once partners and ended up paying much back in different ways. Talk to them and I am sure they will say it was all wonderful!

As soon as I saw that American Airlines had introduced their own distribution blog I knew that something was going to happen. It is certainly a tremor and could possibly become a significant eruption. To do something like they are planning they had to have an outlet to put out their justifications and propaganda. It started relatively brightly but now anybody can see it for what it is.

From my observations the first rumble has come with AA removing the ability for Orbitz to issue their tickets. In a strange way it made me smile. After all it was not that long ago that airlines around the world seemed to see these OTAs as the answer to combat TMCs. They persuaded themselves that it was just what corporations wanted and expected vast volumes of business to transfer over to these new players. It simply did not, and will not happen for all sorts of good reasons. Now, having lovingly introduced and supported these OTAs they are trying to damage them. Rather like a female praying mantis with it’s mate Make love then eat it.

So. Back to our volcano. Is it going to erupt or not? I think it will but not immediately. Something has to happen as these airlines cannot go on paying this level of fees to the GDS indefinitely and there are now growing alternatives, however basic (and costly to others) they may be. Every other part of the supply chain has reinvented themselves so as to respond to enabling technology, new players and changing clients but not (that I can see) the GDS. They have to adjust prices and action new ways of making money just like the TMCs did. Staying as they are is not an option. Meanwhile they should brace themselves for some variations of the Lufthansa model.

To end with my volcano analogy I would say that there will be no big explosion but more a growing flow of lava that will cover and impact the rest of the chain. GDS cost will be taken away, or at least significantly reduced but will pop up again elsewhere until it finally rests with the customer and their employers. They won’t like it and will probably use their power to demand compensation from the ‘offending’ airline. The end result? Rather like the removal of TMC commission the airlines will make a saving in one area only to find a corresponding cost in another. You see what they need to realise is you can only make a lasting saving by improving on the status quo not just changing it.