Talks held to try to prevent BA strike as flights are cancelled

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Top-level talksto try to head off a strike at British Airways ended last night with neither side making any comment. The dispute has resulted in the cancellation of all passenger flights out of Heathrow next Tuesday and Wednesday.

The planned stoppage by thousands of cabin crew has also led to the cancellation of domestic and European services to and from Gatwick on the same days.

The airline's shares were 2 per cent lower yesterday - down 10.75p to 525.75p - after the cancellations, which could cost BA up to £30m. The Transport and General Workers Union (T&G) has called two further three-day walkouts from 5 February and 12 February unless the deadlock is broken.

Last night's talks between Willie Walsh, BA's chief executive, and Tony Woodley, the T&G general secretary, took place at an undisclosed location.

Earlier Mr Walsh said that if there was a breakthrough in the negotiations within the next day or so, long-haul services could all be reinstated next week and that every attempt would be made to operate other flights. But he believed the cancellations would give passengers the opportunity to make alternative arrangements.

Mr Walsh said that "significant" progress had been made in the dispute with the T&G over the degree of absence among stewards and stewardesses. He said that arguments over salaries with cabin staff could be sorted out by bringing forward talks over the next pay round.

"I am really disappointed that the union is pressing ahead with industrial action, it is completely unnecessary and will achieve nothing," Mr Walsh said. "I felt, however, that our customers should be given notice so that they could make alternative travel plans."

The T&G is in a difficult position. Cabin crew are threatening to set up a rebel organisation if their leaders "cave in", as they see it. The T&G is also understood to have been threatened with legal action by BA managers if the strikes go ahead. The airline has argued that the walkouts by T&G baggage handlers in support of Gate Gourmet workers sacked in 2005 were unlawful. If the industrial action goes ahead, management will begin litigation over the Gate Gourmet dispute, it is said.

Mr Woodley said: "I find it beyond belief that this company has got itself into such a damaging situation. Cabin crew are not industrial militants. They are a sizeable group of professional and responsible women and men who have lost trust in their company's management, and that is abundantly evident from [the strike] ballot result."