24Hr emergency line +44 (0)20 8476 4099
Join Balpa

The art of negotiation

by Terry Brandon National Officer

BALPA exists to give pilots a voice and that means negotiating on your behalf. But what is negotiation and what goes on behind closed doors? I have worked within the trade union movement for 20 years, the last nine of which have been as a National Officer with BALPA, so I can give some insight in to the process.

Simply put, a negotiation is a discussion that’s aimed at reaching an agreement. However, those involved in such ‘discussions’ know it’s never that easy!

BALPA aims to achieve the best possible deals for its members. This could be in collective matters such as pay bargaining, job protection, improving benefits, fatigue mitigation or lifestyle arrangements, or in individual cases.
How the officer and Company Council prepare for a negotiation varies by airline, issue, strength of feeling and leverage that can be applied, but it’s good practice to have a plan. Many negotiations follow a set pattern:  

  • Preparation
  • Discussion
  • Clarification of goal
  • Negotiate towards a win-win outcome
  • Reaching the agreement
  • Membership ballot and communicate the outcome
  • Implementation of the deal
  • Evaluate the impact


To get the best for our members, the Company Council and National Officer need to understand what members want. What is our goal? Does it have sufficient membership backing? Company Councils often carry out surveys of members opinions or run an awareness campaign to encourage the sharing of information and opinions.

Past precedents and outcomes can set the tone for current discussions, so negotiators need to do their research. We swot up on the history of the relationship between parties and on past negotiations to find areas of agreement and common goals.

We also benchmark against other operators, take into account the performance of the business, RPI etc. and ensure our aims affect the majority of members and are achievable. A written demand or claim is often submitted based on this preparation, especially in pay bargaining.


Before entering formal negotiations or bargaining, the lead representative or full-time officer may talk to the employer to clarify everyone’s understanding of the issue and agree the process for future discussions. It is essential to keep dialogue open. This discourse should be a continuous process, and may even be ongoing from before the union starts the preparation stage.

Clarification of goals

The goals, interests and viewpoints of both sides of the argument must be defined and understood. The BALPA officer usually sets the scene for the employer, Company Council and membership. Misunderstandings can occur if the negotiator does not state their case clearly. An effective negotiator must say what they want and explain their reasoning clearly.

Negotiate towards a win-win outcome

I hate cliché phrases but I could not think of anything better to describe the art of a successful negotiated outcome. This is of course where both sides feel they have gained something positive from the negotiation.
Contrary to what many people think, negotiation is not a one side against another arrangement.  Effective negotiators on both sides must work together as a team and foster a collaborative atmosphere to reach an agreeable solution.

Reaching the agreement

Wrapping up a negotiation is a lot harder than is sounds! Negotiating teams naturally want time to reflect, add ‘one more thing’ at the last moment or be self-critical of what has been achieved. Knowing when to agree in principle or when to escalate to the next stage takes experience and confidence and depends on so many factors. Does it meet your mandate? Have you the industrial muscle to escalate? Is it genuinely a sensible offer? Have the priorities shifted?

It is critical the negotiating team remains united at this stage. There may be outside influence, such as personality clashes and emotions running high, which can cloud your judgement when a deal is about to be reached in principle. This is when leaders with negotiation skills act decisively. It may be necessary during bargaining to agree to a compromise quickly to end a stalemate.

It’s common for improved offers to be put forward in the very last moments of negotiation. These are often based on securing a Company Council recommendation – but we need to be honest, a recommendation means genuinely recommending the offer. Negotiations should be conducted in good faith, including the before and after stages.

Membership ballot and communicate the outcome

As always, we are here to represent members. That means excellent communication is a must! At the same time, we don’t want to bombard people with conflicting information. Proposals are often made, conceded, or gained many times during a negotiation, so it makes sense to wait until an agreement is reached in principle or negotiations fail before passing all the details on.

It is essential the Company Council respond and act as a team during a consultation exercise. We want to ensure members don’t receive mixed messages which could compromise a ballot result. It doesn’t matter if we advocate accept or reject – yes or no, we must do this as a team!

Implementation of the deal

Experience has taught us it is good practice to ensure BALPA is involved in monitoring and reviewing the deal whist it is being implemented. Quite often, multifaceted packages require joint work streams or phased introductions. BALPA should remain involved throughout the process to ensure the proposal agreed delivers.

Evaluate the impact

So, a deal is agreed and in place, but is it having the desired impact? Being honest with the membership is vital and continuous evaluation allows for corrections, tweaks or retraction if required. Taking stock with the membership is a good way to monitor progress and sometimes a follow up survey may be applicable.

Failure to Agree

Not all negotiations go well! If the process breaks down and agreement cannot be reached, a further meeting is called for. Each airline has its own jointly agreed dispute resolution procedure which is often a three-stage escalation process involving higher or more experienced people from both sides. This avoids both parties becoming embroiled in heated discussion or argument, which not only wastes time but can damage future relationships.

At the subsequent meeting, the stages of negotiation are repeated. Any new ideas or interests are taken into account and the situation looked at afresh.

Negotiations are not about point scoring but are about clear communication and teamwork . The most import point of all is to remember our main aim: To reach an outcome that satisfies you – our members.