Saturday 16 December 2017

Chance for Varadkar to show what he's made of

Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar

THE Aer Lingus website was a sight to behold yesterday: still offering flights to every corner of the earth; while a small banner headline informed those who noticed and then clicked on it that industrial action meant flights were going to be disrupted yet again this week.

Around 30,000 people are likely to miss flights from tomorrow and the level of disruption could be much worse if the two sides don't sort things out.

It seems the airline's pilots live on a different planet to the rest of us. Among the best-paid people in the country, and with jobs that are relatively simple, they continue to demand pay and conditions that make little sense.

Still, the rights and wrongs of the dispute are not really of much concern to the airline's passengers, but the regular disruption to flights from the country's second largest airline is becoming a real problem to businesses trying to survive the recession and tourist destinations.

At a time when few businesses have any cash to splash around, you can be sure that most of the trips booked for this week were not unnecessary. Many were due to be made by businesses struggling to survive and struggling to convince foreign companies that Ireland is still open for business.

Yet another strike by the only Irish airline with serious air connections to major trading partners such as the US, Germany or Russia sends a clear message to companies in those countries that Ireland is not a reliable trading partner.

Messy strikes are becoming part and parcel of the airline industry, or at least that part of the industry that is Irish.

Ryanair has had bitter disputes in the past, as has Aer Lingus and, more recently, Willie Walsh's British Airways.

While a strike appears all but inevitable at Aer Lingus, there must be a better way to protect what is left of Ireland Inc's reputation and to protect businesses.

This is surely an opportunity for Transport Minister Leo Varadkar to show us what he is made of.

Just as the US air-traffic controllers' dispute in 1981 showed the American people that Ronald Reagan was a president who meant business (he fired the 11,345 striking air-traffic controllers and banned them from ever working for the US government), we need some sort of government involvement in an important industrial dispute to set the tone for the present Coalition's involvement with the unions.

Overpaid, pampered and easy to replace, Aer Lingus makes for an interesting target -- certainly a more worthy and popular target than those earning €10 an hour for working on Sundays. There are many other well paid and pampered pressure groups that will be watching this dispute carefully: hospital consultants, for example.

If the Coalition really plans to reform the health system, it will have to show the 100,000 people working inside the system that it means business.

This is not to argue that we must go down the route of Reagan, or Britain's Margaret Thatcher who stockpiled coal before taking on the miners. There can be an Irish solution to this problem, a solution that acknowledges the partnership model has some strengths, but that also acknowledges business needs reliable airlines.

And as the State is part-owner of Aer Lingus, it has a right to ensure that the investment is not destroyed by bankruptcy.

There will probably be some sort of fudge in the end, but it will be a lost opportunity and may leave the airline open to an endless succession of strikes.

Quick and effective intervention now could end a dispute that threatens to damage export-minded businesses and also stave off many bitter, destructive and unnecessary disputes down the line.

Irish Independent

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