Passengers face air travel chaos after BA talks fail

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The Independent Online
Tens of thousands of business travellers and holidaymakers planning to travel with British Airways face chaos at Heathrow and Gatwick airports this week after 11th-hour talks aimed at averting a three-day strike by British Airways cabin crew collapsed yesterday.

The airline said last night that it would try to operate half its inter- continental flights from Heathrow, and one-third from Gatwick, after the action begins at 6am on Wednesday. Hardest hit will be European services from Heathrow, management conceded, of which only one-quarter of flights will operate.

The stoppage will also hit internal BA flights to Heathrow, although the airline said the dispute will not affect international flights from Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Domestic and European services at Gatwick are also outside the scope of the dispute. Union officials said last night that while BA might be able to get flights out, the company would have difficulty getting aircraft back to Britain because overseas airport unions had promised to back the strikers.

The industrial action involves members of the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU), but the company is hoping to maximise the emergency timetable with the help of non-strikers, managers and contract staff. The minority union Cabin Crew '89, which has accepted the pay offer at the centre of the dispute, has nearly 3,000 members and a further 1,500 employees are not members of any union.

In the absence of a settlement, the TGWU intends to call further three- day strikes when this week's stoppage ends at 6am on Saturday.

Some industry sources believe that the company might today seek an injunction to stop the industrial action, possibly on the basis of an allegedly flawed strike ballot. Litigation may only serve to "prolong the agony" for BA, however. Preparation for strike-breaking flights and cancellations of advanced bookings have already cost the company tens of millions of pounds, according to some internal estimates.

Last-ditch talks yesterday at a Sussex hotel broke down amid mutual recrimination. The TGWU said that a 12-point peace formula which it submitted to management was dismissed after 10 minutes, while the company accused employees' representatives of "dragging the discussions backwards".

Bob Ayling, BA's chief executive, said the union had no interest in the competitiveness of the business, did not recognise the need for change or for modern industrial relations. He claimed more cabin crew than anticipated had confirmed that they wanted to work normally during the strike.

A BA spokesman said the airline had no option but to implement contingency plans after the talks broke down after nearly five hours. Representatives of 9,000 cabin crew rejected an offer of an independent monitor to ensure that no one lost out from the pay package which the company has already imposed on stewards and stewardesses.

Another peace offer in a separate dispute involving BA ground crew has been put out to ballot, with the result due mid-week. The airline's airport staff, who have also voted for strikes, are protesting over a plan to sell off the company's catering business. Unions officials expect the 1,400 employees of the division who are directly affected by the sell- off will reject the peace formula.

Bill Morris, the TGWU's general secretary, said the airline was behaving as if it "desperately needed the strike". The news of the talks' collapse emerged a few hours before John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, was due to deliver a keynote address to a pre-conference TGWU rally in Brighton.