Airport unions say new BA pay offer could avert strike

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The Independent Online

Hopes were rising last night of a breakthrough in the pay dispute that is threatening to ground British Airways flights over the August bank holiday.

Hopes were rising last night of a breakthrough in the pay dispute that is threatening to ground British Airways flights over the August bank holiday.

The airline tabled a fresh offer to try to avert a planned 24-hour walk-out by check-in staff and baggage handlers from two unions on one of the busiest holiday weekends. Ed Blisset, chief negotiator for the GMB union, emerged yesterday from talks to express optimism that an agreement was in sight.

BA has offered a pay rise of 8.5 per cent over three years, plus bonuses of up to £1,000 linked to cuts in levels of absenteeism. The GMB and TGWU had been adamant that a pay deal should not be tied to sickness rates.

Mr Blisset said: "I am more hopeful it might be possible to reach a settlement. We will get back later today when we will continue talking. We are going to continue this evening to try to reach a resolution."

A TGWU official said the two sides were not very far apart, adding: "The pressure is on the company."

Mike Street, director of operations for BA, said: "We will talk for as long as it takes to get a solution. We are determined to do so and I am hopeful we will."

The TGWU has announced that its 8,000 BA members, who work at six airports, including Heathrow and Gatwick, will strike for 24 hours next Friday, causing disruption to holidaymakers. The GMB is expected to instruct its 3,000 BA members to strike on the same day.

The action would mean more than 100,000 people having their flights cancelled, with the prospect of waiting several days for a replacement. There would almost certainly be a knock-on effect on flights over the following three days.

Experts have suggested that the industrial action would cost the company - which has been hit by sharp increases in the price of aviation fuel - about £10m a day. Unions have countered that it would cost little more to resolve the eight-month pay dispute.

A ballot of 8,000 TGWU staff produced a clear majority in favour of a strike. Its leadership said the result reflected the anger of members over "the consistent failure by BA to address the issues seriously".

The GMB, with 3,000 members, narrowly backed industrial action. A third union, Amicus, is also taking part in the pay talks, but has no current plans to ballot its members on action.

Before the apparent progress in peace talks, Rod Eddington, the BA chief executive, appealed to the on unions to call off the strike, arguing that the extra £1,000 on offer was worth 6 per cent.

"The extra attendance element we are offering represents a significant increase in pay," Mr Eddington said. "It would also make a real contribution towards improving BA's shocking absence record, which is currently costing us around £60m a year.

"This is a positive step towards settling a potentially damaging dispute for the benefit of everyone."

Mr Eddington conceded the pay offer was "modest" but said it compared favourably with the treatment of staff at competitors such as Ryanair, bmi and easyJet.