The Government was embroiled in a row with the country's biggest union tonight after a cabinet minister launched an extraordinary attack against a planned strike by British Airways cabin crew.
Transport Secretary Lord Adonis said the planned seven days of industrial action could put the future of the airline at risk, calling the walkouts "totally unjustified."
Unite hit back at the minister, saying he was "badly informed" about the long-running dispute, adding that he should be urging the airline to reinstate an offer it withdrew last week.
Privately, union officials were said to be "livid" with Lord Adonis, one saying he had "blundered" into the dispute without knowing all the facts.
It is understood that the union has made representations to 10 Downing Street about the minister's intervention.
Lord Adonis appealed to Unite to return to the negotiating table in an attempt to avert the industrial action planned to begin with a three day strike from next Saturday, followed by a four day stoppage from the following weekend.
Lord Adonis told BBC1's Andrew Marr show: "The impact this will have will not only be deeply damaging on passengers, it will ... threaten the very existence of British Airways.
"The stakes are incredibly high in this strike. I absolutely deplore the strike, it is not only the damage it is going to do passengers and the inconvenience it's going to cause - which is quite disproportionate to the issues at stake - but also the threat it poses to the future of one of our great companies in this country.
"It's totally unjustified, the strike, on the merits of the issues at stake. I do call on the union to engage constructively with the company at this late stage."
"This is an industrial dispute and it needs to be sorted out by proper negotiations.
"We have still got a short window of time before British Airways has to announce what is going to happen to all the flights that would have to be cancelled from next Saturday if the strike goes ahead.
"In this short window I implore the union to get together with the management to see whether, at this late stage, a solution can be found."
He said the union and company bosses were close to a deal last week and he believed the strike could still be avoided.
Lord Adonis urged the union "not to take action which not only would be deeply damaging to the economy and to the public but which could threaten the very jobs of their members which they are seeking to protect".
A Unite spokesman said: "Lord Adonis appears badly informed. We all want to avoid strike action and Unite is always ready to negotiate. Unite was preparing to put BA's offer to our members. Had they accepted it, there would be no strikes.
"However, the company withdrew that offer on Friday without explanation. Lord Adonis should publicly urge management to put that offer back on the table. Should they do so, there is still a possibility of peace. If Lord Adonis is not prepared to speak out, he risks being seen as taking the part of a bullying and intransigent management."
Chancellor Alistair Darling also called for last-ditch talks to avoid the strike, which is set to cause travel chaos for thousands of passengers hoping to get away for Easter.
He told Sky News' Sunday Live: "Strikes will be very damaging to the travelling public, they are totally unhelpful and I am very, very clear that the two sides must get down and try and sort this out without inconveniencing the public or having any adverse impact on the economy."
Unite is a major Labour Party donor and critics have claimed the Government is unwilling to condemn the union's actions.
Conservative party chairman Eric Pickles today wrote to the Prime Minister calling for him to unequivocally condemn the strike and suspend the party's financial relationship with Unite until the dispute was settled.
"In the face of this reckless action, you are giving the impression of siding with the union. Since you became Prime Minister, £11 million or 25% of your funding has come from Unite.
"How can you talk about protecting jobs and beating the recession when you are so reliant on this increasingly militant union that is intent on bringing a British company to its knees?
"If the Labour Party is serious about keeping Britain open for business and wants to send out the right signals internationally, then I believe you should unequivocally condemn the strike and suspend the party's financial relationship with Unite until this dispute is settled and the strikes are called off.
"Otherwise people will rightly conclude that your silence has been bought and that you have chosen to put your political interests above those of the country."
A BA spokesman welcomed the comments by Lord Adonis, adding: "We agree with his position that the strike is disproportionate and unjustified.
"BA is facing two years of record financial losses. Unlike other businesses we have avoided compulsory redundancies and made changes designed to secure the long term future for our company and our staff.
"Cabin crew face no pay cut or reductions in their terms and conditions and remain the best rewarded in the UK airline industry."
BA said it remained available for further talks "at any time", but added it was doing everything it could to protect its customers' travel plans.
BA is tomorrow expected to give details of how flights will be affected if the strikes go ahead in a bid to give "more certainty" to its customers.
Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, said: "BA and the Unite union are behaving like spoilt children in the playground and as usual it is innocent passengers who will suffer. They should call off their strike immediately and find some other way to make their point.
"The fact this strike is due to occur at roughly the same time as the Network Rail dispute looks suspiciously like co-ordinated union action. The unions are trying their best to wind the clock back to the 1970s and create a Spring of Discontent.
"The consequences for the Labour Party will be the same as they were in 1979."Reuse content