British Airways cabin crew will begin the first of their planned strikes this morning after last-ditch talks failed to achieve a resolution.
arlier the Unite union made an 11th-hour offer to call off the strikes if the airline reinstated staff travel concessions.
After a day of deadlock, Tony Woodley, joint leader of Unite, emerged from his London headquarters to say the industrial action due to start at midnight would be suspended if BA's chief executive Willie Walsh gave way on this issue.
But it is understood that BA did not concede in time to avert the first of three five-day strikes. It said it was concentrating on contingency plans which Mr Walsh insisted would mean that the "vast majority" of passengers would still be able to travel whether a strike went ahead or not.
Nevertheless Mr Woodley said he had made his offer as "a goodwill gesture to the public".
"In a sign of good faith I am making this offer: Willie, turn around and reinstate our people's travel without the unnecessary vindictive removal of their service and this union will call off tonight's strike and suspend the action to allow us to conclude the other issues that we were making good progress on yesterday before we were so rudely interrupted," Mr Woodley said. "Reinstate the travel now and those strikes scheduled tonight will be suspended."
Travel concessions – taken away from striking staff in March – remain a deeply divisive issue in the battle between the airline and its union. BA is adamant that travel perks are a distraction from the main issue and says that it has offered to reinstate them, once all elements of a deal have been implemented, adding: "Strikers would again be eligible for staff travel on the same basis as new recruits to the airline."
Strikers, BA insists, were forewarned that this would be a consequence of industrial action. Furthermore it claims: "Staff travel is a sensitive issue within British Airways. The majority of BA's 38,000 staff do not believe that it should be returned to the small minority of employees who went on strike against the company despite its financial plight."
The union, however, described the move as "vindictive" and said that the key issue was that the concessions would only be reinstated at the level of a new employee, meaning that crew would lose all the benefits of seniority.
Last night, a spokeswoman for Unite said this was the crucial issue that was being discussed on Saturday when negotiations were "catastrophically" interrupted by protesters. The talks were abandoned amid scenes of chaos as police were called to eject members of the Socialist Workers Party who stormed the headquarters of the conciliation service Acas. Mr Woodley angrily remonstrated with the protesters telling them to "shut up" while Mr Walsh was taken out by a rear exit.
BA meanwhile accused Derek Simpson, joint leader of the union, of giving a "running commentary" by sending tweets throughout the negotiations. While Mr Simpson's tweets fell silent yesterday, amongst his last posts he wrote: "If I have to apologise to Willy over twittering then I shall ... But I am not afraid of saying what is really going on."
Mr Walsh told BBC 1's Andrew Marr Show yesterday that he was "shocked and angry" to learn that Mr Simpson was sending the tweets during Saturday's meeting, adding: "That really does undermine the discussions that took place, and I think it raises questions about how this union operates."
He said the key issue was the refusal of the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association to accept a deal agreed by Mr Woodley and Mr Simpson and that travel perks were a "distraction" from the main issue.
The airline remains adamant that, after two years of record annual losses, it must reduce costs to ensure long-term survival. Nevertheless Mr Walsh insisted that he believed they had come close to a breakthrough before the mob stormed the building: "There were a number of issues that were I think successfully addressed yesterday, so there is always hope."
Saying he was "sorry and hugely disappointed" for any passengers affected by the latest strike, he remained adamant that BA would survive and be stronger "because we are tackling the core issues".
Against a backdrop of record annual losses of £531m, the strikes will cost the airline millions. In its results statement last week, it noted that its cash balance at the end of March was at £1.7bn – an amount that has been describe as a "war chest" to fight 15 days of strikes by thousands of cabin crew.
"British Airways will be flying tomorrow. We will not be grounded by the actions of a tiny minority who are clearly out of touch with reality," Mr Walsh said yesterday.
Following a Court of Appeal decision to overturn an injunction restraining strike action, Unite announced there would be three five-day strikes beginning today as well as 30 May and 5 June. However, it has said it is ready to resume talks "at any time" and remains committed to settling the dispute.
Direct from the talks: @ dereksimpsonjgs's tweets
*Around 5.40pm, yesterday: There are a few unhappy with my tweeting calling me a moron a dick and several unrepeatable names ... Guess they are the clever ones!
*Around 5pm, yesterday: Unite has offered to suspend strike action if Willie Walsh restores travel arrangements in full to allow talks to continue
*Around 11pm, Saturday: If I have to apologise to Willie over twittering then I shall ... But I am not afraid of saying what is really going on ...
*Around 9pm, Saturday: Remember the days when union leaders were condemned for ignoring members ... Now the complaint is we are listening to them!!
*Around 9pm, Saturday: Unite totally condemns the demonstrators who disrupted the talks at Acas no members of cabin crew were involved
*5.28pm, Saturday: Intruders from left political group has infiltrated ACAS building and disrupted talks ...
*5.05pm, Saturday: When employees on both sides of the dispute hide their faces when interviewing ... then something is badly wrong down at BAReuse content