The Cathay Pacific pilots' dispute has gone on so long it is becoming like a soap opera that has lost the plot. Regular passengers - if they have not switched to other airlines - must be fed up at never being sure whether they will get to their destination at the allotted time.
Both sides in the dispute are showing signs that the action is beginning to bite. The Aircrew Officers' Association is planning a fivefold increase in union fees to help sacked colleagues when their three-month severance pay runs out. But for all the boasts of union solidarity, there seems to be a marked absence of scruples among remaining staff who apparently have had no problems accepting promotion to the posts their 51 colleagues have vacated.
Evidence of the way the company is hurting came last week when 100 workers at the Gate Gourmet catering company, which makes meals for Cathay, were laid off. At full capacity, Cathay caters for 80,000 meals a day. It is taking half that number now. The pilots' action has cost the company $340 million to date, nearly 40 per cent of interim profit. Its share price has slumped and it faces a severe cutback in business if the mainland and Taiwan reach a cross-strait deal. The International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations (Ifalpa) has imposed a ban on its members taking jobs with Cathay. In short, the airline could hardly be worse-placed to maintain market share in a fiercely competitive field.
Protracted union disputes of this kind are familiar the world over, though a lot less frequent in recent years. Whatever the industry involved, the pattern is invariably the same. There is unity at the start, but as time drags on and employees face harsh financial realities, some start to waver and bitterness and recrimination follow. When the dispute is over, employees' morale is permanently shattered and the company's image and profitability lie in tatters.
This dispute is already showing all those signs. And when flight attendants start making threats about spiking the drinks of new pilots, we have to wonder what effect that kind of talk will have on Cathay's reputation for service.