BA slashes Heathrow flights

Compromise too late to save three-quarters of international services
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The Independent Online
Signs of a compromise in the British Airways dispute emerged last night but came too late to stop the cancellation of three-quarters of the airline's international flights and all domestic flights from Heathrow today.

Just 12 hours before a three-day strike was due to start at 6am, the airline made an offer which could lead to a breakthrough, but it will not prevent widespread disruption to schedules, and the likelihood of long delays for those passengers who are able to get on flights.

At Gatwick, two-thirds of BA's intercontinental flights will be grounded. The airline will, however, keep all domestic and European flights in its Gatwick schedule. International flights to and from Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow will be unaffected.

Senior BA managers said they were prepared to consider proposals from the Transport & General Workers' Union to save pounds 42m from cabin crew costs - the issue at the heart of the dispute.

A BA spokesman said that union proposals tabled at the weekend would only have saved half the desired amount. "If the union can come up with suggestions that meet our objectives, then that would be a step in the right direction. The ball is in their court," he said.

Bill Morris, leader of the union, said he would be prepared to consider the peace formula provided there was no question of imposing a solution on his members.

It is understood the offer may involve independent adjudication of cost- saving proposals.

Earlier, BA had shown its determination to break the strike by threatening to lock out the cabin crews if they refused to agree not to go on strike again when they report for work on Saturday.

The airline's hard-line strategy could lead to further disruption to flights in and out of Heathrow and Gatwick after the three-day stoppage ends at 6am on Saturday.

Stewards and stewardesses have been ordered to ring a special number to pledge their readiness to work normally. If they refuse to give a personal no-strike guarantee or fail to make their intentions known, they will be suspended without pay until they do so.

BA's flights were disrupted yesterday after nearly a quarter of the 1,500 cabin crew rostered for duty reported sick. The company, which cancelled 14 Heathrow flights, said the high absence rate was an indication that stewards and stewardess did not want to take part in the strike.

Union officials argued that the sickness rate was overwhelmingly caused by stress following management intimidation. The company has warned that apart from suspension or even dismissal, strikers could lose concessionary travel, chances of early retirement and any prospect of promotion for three years.

Andy Webb, chairman of the rival Cabin Crew '89 union, predicted that large numbers of TGWU members would cross picket lines. Mr Webb contended that the dispute was simply another phase in that union's campaign to destroy his organisation.

George Ryde, chief transport union negotiator at BA, said there had been an enormous degree of intimidation by managers, but expected members to heed the strike call.

An airline spokesman said the company planned to protect strike breakers with security cordons around Heathrow hotels where working cabin crew will have the opportunity to stay free of charge. Pick-up points for special coaches have been arranged and the company has offered to pay taxi fares of up to pounds 75 to ensure that employees are able to get into work.

Transport union pickets are expected at all the main access points to both Gatwick and Heathrow.

A decision on whether to press ahead with strikes by 9,000 BA ground staff involved in a separate dispute is expected before the end of the week. If that group decides to proceed with planned 24 hour stoppages, the airline will face further disruption next week.

BA estimates that up to 40,000 passengers will have their plans disrupted today. Thousands of passengers due to fly back during the stoppage will be stranded unless their travel agents make alternative arrangements.

The airline said it would endeavour to find seats on rival carriers for passengers and, as a last resort, offer refunds.

New York's Kennedy airport, a crucial hub for BA's transatlantic routes, may also be affected. The US Machinists' Union, which represents engineers, baggage-handlers and reservations agents at Kennedy, is backing the British workers. But the airline has made contingency plans to ensure that as many flights as possible operate normally.