Is British Airways too big to fail?

14 December 2009

Once calling itself The World’s Favourite Airline, British Airways seems to be becoming the most despised airline, at least in the UK. The unions have voted for a 12-day strike starting on 22 December, disrupting many families’ Christmas reunions and holidays. Heathrow will be hell on earth, if it goes ahead. Even if this strike action is averted by talks over the next few days, damage to its reputation is already done. The mere threat of industrial action is enough to make people think twice before booking with BA.

Strike actions are often most effective when it hurts the company most, so the timing isn’t surprising. Naturally, unions think that the management will come to some sort of agreement, but the risks and stakes are high. The management has already said that BA is in a precarious business condition, and its pension liability, for example, is alarmingly huge. Neither side seems willing to compromise at the moment.

Perhaps the unions (and the management) think BA is too big to fail. If it were to go bust, it will reflect badly on Britain as a whole. But is it too big to fail? It probably is not. If the strike goes ahead, and BA subsequently teeters on bankruptcy, it is unlikely to receive the necessary political backing for its survival. Popular opinion would be quite fed up with bailing out another big company, especially if industrial action was the cause.