BAA hopes to reach a deal as strikes and travel chaos loom

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The Independent Online

Last-ditch talks will be held today between BAA and unions in an effort to avert strike action planned for next week that would cripple Britain's largest airports.

BAA, which owns Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, is hoping to reach an agreement by Wednesday over plans by its owners, the Spanish construction group Ferrovial, to close its final salary pension scheme to new members. Unite, the union leading the protest, is anxious that it could be the first step along the way to scrapping the scheme.

If a resolution is not reached, BAA will be forced to draw up contingency plans for the first strike. The first 24-hour walkout is due on 7 January followed by another strike on 14 January and a 48-hour stoppage from 17 January. The action will affect Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, as well as Southampton, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen airports.

A union spokesman said the company had refused to back down over a controversial decision to close its final salary pension scheme to new entrants.

"As things stand, the industrial action set to begin on 7 January will go ahead," said the spokesman.

The union has warned that all seven airports will close if the strikes go ahead because they involve crucial staff such as firefighters, security and maintenance workers.

Union members voted by more than two to one in favour of industrial action last week in protest at the pensions decision which the union said had been made without negotiation by Ferrovial. The union stressed it had held off from taking industrial action for the Christmas period but has made it clear that the strikes will go ahead unless the company changes its mind.

The travel plans of hundreds of thousands of passengers will be ruined if the strikes go ahead.

A spokesman for BAA said the company's position was that "as we have said throughout, we believe the threat of industrial action is unnecessary because we have guaranteed that existing workers will not be affected by the change to the pension scheme. We will continue to do all we can to resolve this dispute since a strike would not be in the interests of our passengers or our staff."

In a separate development, BAA is reported to have begun a sale of its World Duty duty-free shops, appointing Merrill Lynch to find a buyer for the business, which has an annual turnover of 440m with profit before tax of 30m.

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