Airport strikes called off after pension talks

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The Independent Online

Travellers planning a New Year break can breathe a sigh of relief today. A planned airport strike that risked bringing travel misery to hundreds of thousands has been called off after union leaders secured a deal to end their dispute over pensions.

The Unite and PCS unions cancelled a one-day stoppage that threatened to close seven major airports next Monday after BAA airport managers agreed to negotiate any changes to the firm's final salary pension scheme.

Two further strikes planned for January will also be called off if the deal is ratified by union representatives at a meeting planned for Thursday.

The news will come as a huge relief to more than a million passengers who faced travel chaos if the stoppages had gone ahead. Travellers returning from abroad would also have faced disruption.

Yesterday, union leaders said BAA had agreed a process to discuss problems in the pension scheme. Officials from Unite said an agreement had been reached in principle to hold "proper consultations" over the future of the pension scheme. Union officials have argued the BAA pension scheme is sound and should be left alone.

Thousands of workers had voted in favour of strike action after BAA's parent company, the Spanish construction group Ferrovial, decided to close its final salary pension scheme to new members, sparking fears the move could be the first step along the way to scrapping the scheme.

Firefighters, security, maintenance and clerical staff had threatened to walk out for their first one-day strike on 7 January. A second one-day stoppage was scheduled for 14 January with a 48-hour strike planned to start on 17 January if a deal was not found.

A spokesman for Unite said: "The company has agreed there will be proper discussions before any decision is reached on the future of the pension scheme.

"We are pleased with the progress made today and that we are able to call off the strike action on 7 January. The whole agreement will be put forward to representatives on 3 January for their consideration."

BAA had no immediate comment on the deal.

Yesterday's talks came after the two sides failed to reach agreement during hours of meetings last week amid warnings the staff were prepared to walk out to protect the future of the company pension scheme.

The strikes had threatened to hit services at all seven of BAA's airports at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Southampton, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Unite represents about 6,000 airport workers employed by BAA and warned that all seven airports would close if the strikes went ahead because they involve crucial staff.

BAA said 1.3 million passengers would have been affected by the strikes.

Strikes over Christmas were ruled out by union leaders to avoid disruption to festive travel plans, after staff voted two to one in favour of action.

Meanwhile Virgin Atlantic passengers also face strike action by cabin crew in a dispute over pay. The airline said it plans to run "nine out of 10" flights during two 48-hour strikes on 9 January and 16 January.

A Virgin spokesman said staff had been contacting their managers, offering to work on strike days after they received a letter from Sir Richard Branson making clear the firm would not increase its pay offer.