BA seeks to undermine cabin crew's two-day walkout

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The Independent Online

British Airways has drawn up plans to undermine crippling industrial action by thousands of cabin crew who were due to start their campaign of disruption with a two-day walkout beginning last night.

Staff are being offered up to £200 a day in transport expenses in an attempt to lure them across picket lines mounted by the Transport and General Workers' Union (T&G).

Management has told the airline's stewards and stewardesses that they can ignore regulations stipulating that they turn up for duty in BA uniform to prevent them being targeted by strikers.

The company is also setting up park-and-ride shuttle bus services based at locations away from the airport and establishing a 24-hour phone line to offer "advice and support" to those who want to work during the strike.

Although the company expects non-union members and those who belong to the rival union Amicus to turn up for work, managers are also seeking to encourage T&G members to ignore the industrial action, which was backed by an overwhelming vote of 96 per cent in an 80 per cent turnout. Of the 15,000-strong cabin crew workforce, more than 10,500 are T&G members.

Talks aimed at averting the strike were adjourned last night and will resume today, just hours before the walkout is due to start at midnight, including six more days of strikes in the next fortnight, that could cost the airline £120m. If the two-day strike goes ahead, management believes it will have a serious knock-on effect on services, with some being cancelled over the following days, up to as late as 8 February.

A BA spokeswoman said the airline would attempt to reinstate as many flights as possible tomorrow and Wednesday if there was an 11th hour settlement of the dispute. The conflict centres on pay structures and the way in which sick leave regulations have been imposed.

The company last week cancelled all its flights on the two strike days because Willie Walsh, BA's chief executive, believed it was better for passengers to be given time to make other arrangements. A total of 1,300 services have been axed and 120,000 passengers given a refund or booked on flights with other airlines.

Some flights flying the BA flag will continue to operate. Long-haul services due to fly in during the two-day stoppage will be exempt and management believes that six out of nine flights out of Gatwick will stick to the timetable courtesy of non T&G cabin crew. The airline's subsidiary BA Connect, which flies out of regional airports, will operate as normal and so will airlines with a BA franchise, such as GB Airways.

The seriousness of the dispute is underlined by the direct involvement of Mr Walsh in talks with Jack Dromey, the T&G's deputy general secretary.

Part of the reason for the "hands-on" approach by Mr Walsh, however, is the imminent departure of his head of human resources, Neil Robertson. The "director of people", as he is called, is due to quit the company on Wednesday after months of controversy over the company's industrial relations.

In November Mr Robertson agreed to leave after the dispute over the suspension of an employee for wearing a crucifix and his notice period elapses this week. Even if the present dispute is settled, there are other clouds on BA's industrial relations horizon which will prompt questions from investors when the airline unveils interim results on Friday.

The main wage negotiations are yet to take place. Talks were due to begin in autumn, but were postponed because of the company's dispute with all four unions over how to deal with a £2.1bn pensions deficit. The GMB general union is the only employees' group yet to reach deal on the issue.

While Mr Walsh is seeking to cut costs, the unions will be seeking pay increases in excess of the inflation rate. Official figures for December show that the Retail Price Index, which includes mortgage payments, rose by 4.4 per cent. The BA chief executive is committed to establishing a 10 per cent operating margin.

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