The company has asked the Transport & General Workers Union for an explanation for an "apparent discrepancy" in the ballot for industrial action which could render the result invalid.
Management said the union appeared to allow 10 per cent more members to vote than was notified to the company under employment law. A spokesman for BA said that he had received the advice of leading counsel on the issue and believed the vote could be declared null and void.
George Ryde, chief TGWU negotiator at BA, said it was six weeks since the ballot procedure began and two weeks since the result was announced. Mr Ryde questioned why the company should choose to challenge the ballot at such a late stage.
Referring to management claims about the membership of a rival union, the TGWU official said: "The airline seems to have used the same creative accountancy in this legal challenge as it has done when estimating the membership of Cabin Crews in '89."
Nearly one-third of BA flights will be cancelled during the first three- day strike that begins tomorrow morning, with up to 40,000 passengers affected.
The airline carries 100,000 people world-wide on a typical day, and was yesterday negotiating frantically with other carriers in an effort to transfer travellers to other flights.
Worst disrupted will be Heathrow, where only 15 per cent of European and 35 per cent of long-haul flights will leave. Among the European destinations hit by cancellations will be Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Lyon, Toulouse and Oporto. Among long-haul cancellations from Heathrow will be flights to North America. Inter-continental flights from Gatwick will also be badly affected, with only 35 per cent operating. Among services disrupted will be those to destinations in South America and Africa.
Passengers already on holiday who were due to fly back to Heathrow or Gatwick during the strike period will be stranded abroad unless their travel agents manage to make alternative arrangements. And domestic flights in and out of Heathrow will be wiped out.
However, domestic and European services from Gatwick will operate as normal, as will European and long-haul flights from Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Glasgow airports. Airlines that operate as franchise partners of BA, such as Brymon and Loganair, will also fly full services.
A BA spokeswoman said that as a last resort people would be given full refunds on their tickets. The airline says that flights will be staffed by non-union employees and cabin crew in unions not involved in the dispute. The airline has spent pounds 500,000 on an advertising campaign giving details of disrupted flights. Despite that, travel agencies were inundated with inquiries yesterday.
The Prime Minister's Office made clear last night that it foresaw no active intervention by the Government in the dispute; it said it was best sorted out by the two sides involved. There has been speculation that Tony Blair might take an interest because of his friendship with Bob Ayling, of British Airways, and Bill Morris, of the transport workers' union, but that was ruled out.
The union expects the company to demand that strikers, returning to work on Saturday, sign an agreement to work normally. Failure would lead to dismissal, it is believed. It will decide tomorrow whether to press ahead with industrial action by 9,000 ground staff in protest at the sale of BA's catering division.
Andreas Whittam Smith,
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