Airport chaos looms as BA check-in staff vote to strike

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Thousands of holidaymakers face delays at airports this summer after British Airways check-in staff yesterday voted to strike in support of higher pay.

The GMB union said 53 per cent of its 3,000 members had voted to back industrial action in a move which is likely to cause widespread travel disruption for holidaymakers.

The Transport and General Workers' Union, which represents more than 19,000 of British Airways' 48,000 staff, is also balloting its members over strikes, with the vote closing on 18 August. A third union, Amicus, remains in talks with the airline.

The strike threat among staff at the second largest airline in Europe follows months of negotiations and a rejection by the unions of a pay offer worth 8.5 per cent over three years.

BA urged the unions to continue negotiations despite the outcome of the GMB ballot in an attempt to resolve the dispute without disrupting services.

"Our number one priority is ensuring our customers can continue to look forward to their summer holidays," said Mike Street, BA's director of customer service and operations.

"Our travelling public do not deserve to be the victims and we will do everything in our power to ensure they are not. We remain hopeful of a resolution."

However, union officials attributed the ballot result to the "anger" of BA staff at not being offered an acceptable resolution to the pay dispute. "This result indicates our members' anger at BA's wholly inadequate pay offer," said Ed Blissett, a GMB official.

"If we are to avoid a late summer of total chaos at all airports from which BA operates, they need to stop prevaricating about negotiating with the unions. That way we can avoid massive disruption to thousands of holidaymakers' flights."

While the earliest strike date cited was 23 August, GMB leaders will meet on Monday and may make a new proposal. Allan Black, the chief negotiator of the GMB, claimed that if the company had made efforts to talk to the unions "genuinely and constructively" six months earlier, the ballot would not have taken place.

"We ask British Airways, why is it that talks begun in the cool of January have been allowed to drag on into the heat of August and the peak holiday season?"

BA has made two offers worth 8.5 per cent over three years or 10.5 per cent if it does not count towards pensions.

"This is not a lot of money when you consider that some in the BA boardroom are rubbing their hands over half a million pounds a year," said Mr Black.

"We will do everything we can to avoid disruption but management should take note that these low-paid workers are now prepared to take strike action."

Airline chiefs are keen to avoid a strike. An unofficial walkout by check-in staff at Heathrow airport last summer left 100,000 passengers stranded and cost the airline £40m.

While the company announced pre-tax profits of £115m for the three months to June, news of the ballot result prompted shares to fall 1.9 per cent yesterday afternoon.

Defending its position on pay rises, Mr Street said: "We believe our offer is fair and reasonable given the challenges facing our company. We already have the highest employment costs of any airline in Europe and must act responsibly to protect the jobs and futures of all our staff.

"Our staff have performed magnificently in difficult circumstances in recent years. I would urge our unions not to unravel that good work by inflicting disruption and inconvenience to our travelling public."

It also emerged yesterday that the airports operator BAA has been in discussions with union officials over pay rises for its 11,800 UK staff.

It announced that a recommended offer proposed by the union will go to ballot between 19 August and 16 September.