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12th September 2016

HR Issues – Flybe Flex

Flybe, like other lower-cost airlines, offers a range of fares on its web-site in an attempt to appeal to the travel aspirations and pockets of its many customers.  One of its current offers is its flex ticket.  However, as with other airlines and indeed other businesses, the choices Flybe wishes to offer its customers makes staffing a more complicated business to organise and has demanded a highly flexible work-force.

But what happens when employees test how flexible the business can be with them?

There are likely to be many instances of flexible working requests which agile businesses, such as Flybe, can cope with and agree. However, recently, the Birmingham Employment Tribunal considered a case the industry (and other similar businesses) consider as somewhat of a test case.  As reported by the Exeter Express and Echo, Emma Seville, Cabin Crew Manager and employee of Flybe for 13 years, was successful in a claim of sex discrimination against the airline but unsuccessful in her flexible working claim.

Emma worked full-time, on a rota, where she had to work any 22 days required by the airline each month.  After 9 months on maternity leave, she requested to reduce her working days to 11 per month and for these days to be fixed in advance, to allow her to make proper childcare arrangements.  She made this latter request due to difficulties she faced in getting anyone to agree to provide childcare for her in such an ad hoc manner.  Emma exhausted the internal flexible working process (hearing and appeal) and thereafter decided to make the 2 claims against the airline because although Flybe agreed to her reduction in days, they rejected her request for her hours to be fixed.

Internally and thereafter at employment tribunal, the business argued that it would have a detrimental effect on the business and cause them problems if they were to agree to the entirety of her requests.  They also demonstrated that the rota already allowed for some shift swapping and thus was not completely rigid.  It is easy to see how this argument could have been formed and to understand their fear of opening the flood-gates to others in the workforce.  However, the employment tribunal found that although they did not have to agree her flexible working request, they had still erred.  The tribunal held that the airline had indirectly discriminated against Emma (and other women) due to their workforce practices.  Many of the cabin crew workforce were women of childbearing/rearing age and by enforcing these types of rotas on the cabin crew, they had placed women like Emma at a disadvantage, in comparison with male crew members.  The organisation and employee have 6 weeks to agree a settlement and if they are unable to do so, the employment tribunal will decide what level of award to grant.

Sometimes judgements such as these can be difficult for businesses to take on board as they appear to act against the interests of a competitive marketplace.  Where this case fell down though was not due to the business rationale or process for rejecting the flexible working request but due to a practice which may not have been sufficiently considered for its impact on equality.

If you are grappling with a difficult flexible working request or are unsure if your practices could be directly or indirectly unfair to some categories of employees, please do get in touch.

12th September 2016