BA hits out at union as passengers take strain

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The Independent Online
British Airways last night got tough with striking cabin crews. The company threatened to sue their union over the three-day strike which yesterday grounded almost 70 per cent of flights from Heathrow.

The airline described the strike as "unlawful", claiming that in the ballot for industrial action, 10 per cent more people voted than had been properly notified to the company.

Despite the loss of hundreds of services, BA said its contingency plans to deal with the strike were "going exactly to plan". The airline said it would announce 20 per cent more flights today. However the Transport and General Workers' Union pointed out that with 1,500 cabin crew off sick and hundreds of staff staying at home, it was a hollow victory.

"BA claimed last week it would be business as usual. Well, it certainly did not do much business," said Michael Coleman, the union's branch secretary.

Mervyn Walker, the airline's head of human resources, said the union seemed to have balloted staff who were either not members of the union or not BA employees. He said BA was consulting lawyers to recover "costs incurred by the action" and was also considering an injunction. The airline would not speculate on the cost of the stoppage - which wiped 135 flights from BA's Heathrow timetable. However, experts estimate that Heathrow alone generates nearly pounds 17m of revenue a day for BA.

The union said that the 1,000 members which BA claimed had voted illegally would not have made a difference. "The vote was overwhelmingly for industrial action. It was 5,000 to 1,700 for," said a spokesman. George Ryde, the union's chief negotiator, argued that while the TGWU could be sued for pounds 250,000 if the ballot was flawed, the legal process would prolong the uncertainty and add to the pounds 200m already forfeited in lost bookings.

Senior managers yesterday sent out conflicting messages about the BA's willingness to compromise. While they said publicly that cabin crew would have to accept a pay and conditions package already imposed on other staff, other sources were indicating that there was a "glimmer of a chance" that it could be amended. The sources said the company would need to hear directly from Bassa, the transport union's cabin crew branch, on its proposals to save pounds 42m - the issue at the heart of the dispute.

John Monks, Trades Union Congress general secretary, who is thought to be working behind the scenes for a settlement, called for a boycott of BA, which he said was attempting to break the union.

More than 15,000 passengers were affected yesterday. Many were left with long delays, while others had to switch airlines. Heathrow bore the brunt of the stoppage. More than 50 per cent of long-haul and 62 per cent of European services were cut.

The strike is set to continue today and Friday.

t The British Medical Association last night criticised British Airways for demanding that staff produce a sick note for a single day's absence from work due to illness. After complaints from doctors, Dr Ian Bogle, chairman of the BMA's general medical services committee, told BA in a letter that the move was "an unnecessary waste of GPs' valuable time and scarce NHS resources".

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