BA customers face chaos as last-gasp strike talks collapse
A three-day strike by British Airways cabin crew affecting thousands of travellers was set to start at midnight last night after last-ditch talks between the airline's management and union leaders collapsed.
BA chief executive Willie Walsh said it was "deeply regrettable" that the union declined to accept a proposal on pay and working conditions from the airline, adding that offer would be withdrawn once the strike began.
BA, which placed an advertisement in British newspapers reassuring customers it would do its best to minimise disruption, said it expected to operate about 65pc of its scheduled flights over the next three days.
Some 1,100 flights out of the 1,950 flights scheduled to operate during the walkout will be cancelled, but the airline has leased planes and crew from rival carriers, including Ryanair, to take up some of the shortfall.
At its Heathrow base, more than 60pc of long-haul flights will operate, but only 30pc of short-haul flights. At Gatwick Airport, all long-haul flights and more than half of short-haul flights will run as normal.
"Tens of thousands of BA people stand ready to serve our customers," Mr Walsh said. "BA will be flying tomorrow."
Picket lines will be mounted over the weekend at several entrances to Heathrow Airport, but Mr Walsh said he had "no concern whatsoever" about the threat of solidarity actions in other countries.
Unions representing ground crew and plane-service workers in the United States, Spain and Germany have indicated they may be prepared to join a walkout.
Unite joint general secretary Tony Woodley said that BA "does not want to negotiate and ultimately wants to go to war with this union".
The prospect of travel chaos in Britain in the run-up to the Easter break also intensified with news that railway signal workers voted in favour of a strike, joining rail maintenance workers. The Rail Maritime and Transport union has not called dates for a walkout of both groups of workers, but has refused to rule out the Easter weekend.
The prospective industrial unrest is an unwelcome turn of events for the Labour Party on the eve of a general election.
"As the country struggles out of the recession, the last thing we need is the unions holding the country to ransom," said Theresa Villiers, the opposition Conservative Party's transport spokeswoman.
BA argued that the disputed changes -- including a pay freeze in 2010, a switch to part-time work for 3,000 staff and a reduction in cabin crew sizes from 15 to 14 on long-haul flights from Heathrow Airport -- were critical for its survival. Unite argued it was not properly consulted on the changes.
BA said it had offered to modify the changes, even though they had been approved by Britain's High Court, but Unite had declined to put the offer to its members to vote.
Analysts estimate that BA has already lost more than £25m (€27.7m) because of cancelled tickets and the cost of contingency plans.
Unite has a second, four-day walkout planned to begin on March 27 and has said more strikes will be scheduled for after April 14 if the dispute is not resolved. It has made a pledge not to walk out over the busy Easter period. (AP)