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Post Info TOPIC: When it comes to PR turbulence, British Airways flies above rest


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When it comes to PR turbulence, British Airways flies above rest
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When it comes to PR turbulence, British Airways flies above rest

LONDON -- It was barely the size of a 5-pence coin but Nadia Eweida's pendant cross has provoked rows up and down the land, threats of a Church of England boycott against British Airways and stern words between the Prime Minister and BA's chairman.

An evangelical Christian, Ms. Eweida refused to conceal her cross beneath her uniform while doing her job at BA's check-in counter. Like most airlines, BA has a strict uniform code and displays of jewellery are forbidden. Ms. Eweida refused to comply, was suspended from duty and promptly took the airline to an employment tribunal arguing that she was a victim of religious discrimination. Certain religious garb is permitted as a derogation to the BA uniform code: Sikhs are permitted turbans and Muslim women can wear a head scarf.

She lost her case and the appeal but she won the battle that mattered to her, exposing what she saw as institutional hypocrisy and bias against devout Christians. After the public furor, a sharp rebuke to BA from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and a not very veiled threat to sell the Church Commissioners holding of 10-million ($22.1-million) of BA stock, the airline finally said it would review its policy on uniforms. BA's management was also mindful of the all-important U.S. market where Christian groups were beginning to hear of Ms. Eweida and her silver cross.

BA's damascene conversion to a more tolerant uniform policy is not surprising but the airline's unerring ability to walk straight into a trap is troubling for its customers, investors and staff. BA is only just recovering from a damaging strike at a catering supplier, Gate Gourmet, a former BA subsidiary chock full of former airline employees. A top executive has quit after the launch of a transatlantic inquiry into price-fixing of fuel surcharges and BA has a new chief executive officer, Willie Walsh, who is lumbered with managing the airline's pension deficit of 2-billion and the task of mending the appalling labour relations.

Why do large organizations so often fail to notice the foul mess on the pavement or the elephant in the room? The airline sells crosses from its in-flight trolleys but for inexplicable reasons it decided to confront an employee with strong views on a matter that is both topical and sensitive. BA is lacking esprit de corps and the dead hand of its top executives in the vital management of public opinion is particularly notorious. This week, the company's chairman invited a rebuke from Prime Minister Tony Blair. In full media glare at a business leader's conference Martin Broughton asked Mr. Blair why he did not support BA's stance, bearing in mind that the army and police both impose the same uniform restrictions as BA.

His response revealed more about slippery Tony Blair than about government policy. Get on the right side of the argument, Mr. Blair told BA's chairman. "One of the things I learnt in politics is that there are some battles really, really worth fighting and there are battles really, really not worth fighting," he said.

It's hard not to feel sympathetic to Britain's flag carrier after such a public put-down. It's not the first time that BA has been torn off a strip by powerful politicians. Margaret Thatcher famously draped her handkerchief over the tailfin of a model BA jumbo jet, objecting to the new multicultural livery that then dispensed with the Union Jack.

"We fly the flag," said Mrs. Thatcher in disgust at BA's attempt to curry favour with foreigners.

Unlike bendy Blair, whose political ear is always tuned to the most powerful music, BA did what big organizations always do -- it followed the rule book. How else can you run an airline, they might argue. Without strict compliance to rules, planes fall out of the sky. Uniforms are just part of a bigger picture.

There is a bigger picture, one that is dynamic, ever-changing and that is public opinion. Customers on BA flights are frequently offered a free bottle of champagne in return for filling out a customer service questionnaire. The airline knows it must please the public but it cannot even begin to do that if it ignores the quirks and eccentricities of its staff.

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