Air passengers face weeks of disruption after talks between BA and the union representing its cabin crew broke down yesterday. The crew are being called out on a three-day strike from 20 March, and a four-day strike a week later. More strikes could follow in April.
With both sides blaming the other for the impasse, it appeared yesterday that the dispute could still be rumbling on when the general election is called.
"There will be no strikes over the Easter period, as we already promised, but further industrial action will be called to take place after 14 April if the dispute has not been resolved," Len McCluskey, who led negotiations on the union side, said yesterday.
As well as bringing hardship to air travellers, and to the families of the striking cabin crew, the dispute could turn into a political embarrassment for Gordon Brown. BA cabin crew are members of the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association, a semi-independent section of Unite, the giant union that is Labour's biggest backer. Jack Dromey, the husband of Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman, and Gordon Brown's former spin doctor Charlie Whelan are both senior officials of Unite, although neither is personally involved in the BA dispute.
The strike is a continuation of the dispute that almost led to cabin crew striking over Christmas in protest at changes in pay and staffing imposed by the airline in November. The threat to disrupt Christmas air traffic for 12 days was ruled illegal because some of the crew who had voted in a strike ballot were no longer working for BA. A second ballot of the 7,500 cabin crews in February produced another heavy majority in favour of a strike.
BA's tough-talking chief executive, Willie Walsh, appears determined to break the strike. BA management say that they have 1,000 specially trained staff to cover those who walk out, and they plan to hire 23 fully crewed planes from charter companies to help run flights from Heathrow. Mr Walsh has also threatened that cabin crew who go on strike will no longer get their travel to work costs paid for by the company.
All flights from London City airport and all long-haul flights from Gatwick would be unaffected. The main disruption will be at Heathrow, but some short-haul flights from Gatwick could also be cancelled. While the strike is on, there will be no hot meals, children's meals or duty-free sales on board their flights.
Bassa claims that, after the union had put forward proposals to cut costs, the gap between the two sides came to only £10m. The union had drawn up a 10-page document with suggested savings on pay, crew numbers, hotel costs and meal allowances, that came to almost £63m. But Mr Walsh countered by saying that some of the staff pay cuts proposed by the union would be "morally wrong" and that the union had failed to come up with any credible plan. He said the two sides were "not close at all".
Gordon Brown urged the two sides to resume negotiations. "It's in my view essential that the parties continue to talk, even at this 11th hour," he said. "I hope they will do so but I remind them of the danger and risk to the British economy of disruptive strikes going ahead."