A senior British Airways pilot reveals today the startling levels of casual racism in the flagship UK company, which once famously claimed to be “the world’s favourite airline”.
Captain Doug Maughan, who has 28 years’ flying experience, including 15 years with BA, says that derogatory remarks about race by his colleagues are so common they are treated as normal.
Mr Maughan, a serving pilot who captains BA aircraft to all parts of the world, has decided to go public with his complaints after struggling to persuade BA’s management to take racism among its senior staff seriously. He has complained by email to BA’s chief executive, Willie Walsh, but says no action was taken.
His allegations are an acute embarrassment for the airline which carries 36 million passengers a year; operates out of airports in every continent; and could plausibly claim to be one of Britain’s most high-profile companies. The airline is already threatened with a boycott by Nigerians flying to and from the UK.
Mr Maughan alleges that racism is a “generational” problem—common among middle-aged pilots, but rare among younger pilots.
He lodged his first complaint after hearing a senior training captain use the word “coon” during a training session on a flight simulator—but says that no action was taken.
“There was the time when we set off for Los Angeles with a large party of Saudis on board, who had joined us at Heathrow direct from the VIP lounge,” he added. “In the cruise, my captain suddenly embarked on an extraordinary rant about ‘rag-heads’. He got the word out twice before I stopped him by explaining he was going to be short of a first officer for the return sector if he carried on.”
Mr Maughan, who lives in Dunblane, Perthshire, was on another flight when a fellow flight officer complained that there were too many Asians in Britain. “The captain turned to me and said: ‘I don’t suppose there are many of them up your way.’ I replied: ‘Well, there’s my wife.’ After that, they had the decency to fall silent,” he said.
He has also complained about abusive emails sent to him by a fellow pilot, who is English. One of the emails said: “Come separation, will all Jocks F. off to that Welfare State (paid for by English middle classes)??? Please say yes.”
Mr Maughan, 53, is so exasperated by what he sees as BA management’s refusal to tackle the problem that he is planning a protest at this year’s annual shareholders’ meeting. “It’s what I’d call a canteen culture,” he said. “It seems to be accepted that people are going to make racist remarks and get away with it. The phrase ‘institutional racism’ has been so over-used as to be almost worthless, but I have to say that racism is as prevalent now in BA as it was in the RAF 25 years ago.
“What is common among white flying crew in BA is the use of mildly derogatory, sometimes jokey, language about other races, mainly aimed at black and Asian groups. Because it’s so common, it’s hard to tackle: it’s . . . the norm and rarely even noticed.”
BA said: “All British Airways employees must adhere to our policies concerning dignity at work. Under these policies we encourage employees to report incidences of racism, sexism or any other behaviour that they deem offensive or inappropriate. Any reports of such behaviour are taken extremely seriously and investigated as a matter of priority. Captain Maughan has a duty as an employee to provide details of any alleged inappropriate behaviour direct to the airline.”
Mr Maughan’s revelations come as BA’s treatment of Nigerian passengers threatens to have diplomatic repercussions. Robert Dewar, the British high commissioner to Nigeria, has been summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be warned that Nigeria expects its citizens to be treated with “dignity”. And a meeting between BA representatives and the director general of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, Harold Demuren, broke up when Dr Demuren objected that BA had slighted him by sending junior managers.
Nigeria’s President, Umaru Yar’Adua, has ordered an investigation into an incident at Heathrow in which 136 passengers were turned off a BA flight to Lagos. It developed as immigration officers and BA staff were trying to force a man who was being deported to stay on board against his will. The deportee, Augustine Eme, is a member of Massob, a banned organisation in Nigeria campaigning for independence for the region of Biafra.
A fellow passenger, Ayodeji Omotade, from Chatham, objected to Mr Eme’s treatment and was arrested. Mr Omotade’s arrest triggered more protests, until the BA captain ordered every passenger in economy class off the plane. BA has defended the decision to empty the aircraft saying that it was legally obliged to carry passengers such as Mr Eme. It said a large number of passengers on flight BA75 on 27 March became disruptive; that it was not possible to pinpoint which ones were involved; and that the police and crew agreed it could pose a safety risk to allow them to stay on board.
BA’s other troubles
BA’s biggest disaster in recent years was the botched opening of Heathrow Terminal 5 on 27 March. More than 500 flights were cancelled after a hi-tech baggage handlinge system malfunctioned. The fiasco cost the airline £16m, and, combined with rising oil prices, caused its share price to fall to its lowest level in four years. Chief executive Willie Walsh resisted calls for his resignation.
In August 2005, the catering firm Gate Gourmet, which wanted redundancies among its full-time staff, brought in 130 temporary staff to handle the holiday workload. The firm’s 600 staff went out on unofficial strike, and were sacked. About 1,000 BA staff walked out in sympathy.As a result, 900 flights were grounded and BA lost £45m.
BA was threatened with a boycott by protesting Christians, after Nadia Eweida, a check-in worker, was suspended for refusing to remove her crucifix at work.