Behind the wire, loyal staff learn the airline's secret strategy to break a union

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If British Airways is hit by industrial action, management will have considerable difficulty in emulating the industrial coup de grace delivered by Ruperb Murdoch at his Wapping plant more than a decade ago.

Despite dismissing 5,000 of his print workers, Mr Murdoch produced all four of his newspapers with the help of a "ghost" army of new recruits. Robert Ayling, chief executive of BA, has already lined up a large group of temporary workers to keep the airline's flag flying and with the help of managers and non-strikers will doubtless be able to provide a timetable of some sort if cabin crew and ground staff walk out. Unlike the media baron, however, there is little chance of a full service from day one.

Apart from the attentions of pickets and the inevitable delays caused by inexperienced staff, Mr Ayling will be unable to control the activity - or lack of it - of airport workers abroad.

The Transport & General Workers Union has spent much of the last year garnering support from foreign unions - especially in the USA and Europe. The International Transport Workers' Federation argues that even if BA aircraft are loaded and take off from Heathrow and Gatwick, they could well find that there is no one at their destination to unload the plane or refuel it.

Workers in most other developed countries are unfettered by laws banning secondary action introduced by the last government. In many cases there would be no means of forcing reluctant employees to process BA flights.

Management's best hope would be that the international pledges of support fail to materialise as they have in most other industrial conflicts.

While George Ryde, national official of the transport union, has been soliciting solidarity abroad, the airline has made its own detailed preparations under the so-called "snow plan". As revealed last December by The Independent, some 1,600 managers - about half the total at Heathrow - have been trained to break the strike. Many of them have been taken to RAF Wroughton, Wiltshire, where they have been shown how to stow baggage and freight and tow planes into position. The "snow plan" was originally conceived as a means of providing between 50 and 75 per cent of services during severe weather. Under "snow plan Mark II" managers will be charged with keeping a limited timetable operating. Documents seen by this newspaper showed managers would need to work as ground staff for between four and six weeks until contractors could be brought in.

It is also thought that the company has been training new cabin crew. While under normal conditions it takes six weeks to prepare stewards and stewardesses for flights, the basic safety skills can be imparted within a week, although fresh recruits would have to work under the supervision of experienced personnel. With the help of members of Cabin Crew '89, an organisation which broke away from the TGWU, the airline could keep aircraft in the air.

Senior managers have told members of the smaller union and non-trade unionists that they would attempt to ensure protection against over-zealous pickets and offer means of smuggling themselves into work.

In a ploy reminiscent of the Wapping dispute, strike breakers were also promised secret collection points for coach services. Others will have taxi fares of up pounds 75 paid and those who chose to use their own vehicles have been assured that car parks would be guarded.

If the dispute goes ahead the determination to win on both union and management, would ensure that the dispute became quite as bitter as the conflict at Wapping.