Engineers threaten to widen dispute at British Airways

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The Independent Online

The industrial unrest at British Airways, which has so far cost tens of millions of pounds, was threatening to spread last night after the airline's engineers warned they might join the dispute.

The move came as Rod Eddington, BA's chief executive, warned the workforce that it would take a "Herculean effort" to repair the damage done to the company's reputation by the unofficial action, which left tens of thousands of passengers stranded as hundreds of flights were cancelled.

The airline is already in talks with the three unions representing the check-in staff at the arbitration service Acas in an attempt to head off a further damaging wave of strikes over the summer. Two of the unions - the GMB and Amicus-AEEU, have already said they will ballot members over official strikes but the airline's biggest union, the TGWU, has yet to decide whether to hold a ballot. Engineers at Heathrow and Gatwick said yesterday they would also hold a ballot over industrial action if BA did not enter talks with them over the new system.

Mr Eddington said the talks were being held in "a cordial and sensible atmosphere". But he also made it clear that the introduction of electronic clocking-on for check-in staff - the flashpoint which provoked the walk-outs - was non-negotiable.

He said the move to electronic clocking-on through the use of smart cards issued to staff was a key element in the modernisation and cost-cutting programme designed to stem BA's losses. Writing in this week's edition of BA News, Mr Eddington said: "There is no point trying to play down the effect that this dispute has had on our business. It has cost us tens of millions of pounds at a time when we are trying to save every penny."

But he said more serious damage had been done to BA's reputation. "The newspaper headlines and television pictures from the Heathrow terminals convey more effectively than I can ever do the hugely damaging repercussions for British Airways. Repairing our reputation and restoring the confidence of our customers - the people who pay all our wages - is going to require a Herculean effort over the coming days, weeks and months."

BA was already expected to lose about £150m this year before the effects of last weekend's strikes and analysts are now pencilling in full-year losses of £170m to £180m. Apart from the direct losses caused by the turmoil at Heathrow, BA is likely to lose millions of pounds through passengers booking flights with other airlines to ensure they are not caught up in any future industrial action.

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic said bookings had doubled since the disruption at BA. Ryanair, meanwhile, said it planned to take advantage of the "Hell at Heathrow" by running adverts exposing the "myth" that full-service airlines looked after their customers better.

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