British Airways risks provoking fresh chaos at Heathrow by sacking union shop stewards at the heart of this summer's wildcat walkout by baggage handlers.
The airline's new chief executive, Willie Walsh, believes an internal disciplinary hearing has received overwhelming evidence that the men incited the unlawful stoppage which left more than 100,000 passengers stranded.
Mr Walsh is understood to be determined to dismiss at least two of three Transport and General Workers' Union (T&G) stewards involved in the strike, held in sympathy with 700 workers sacked by BA's catering supplier Gate Gourmet.
Such dismissals could provoke another unlawful walkout by baggage handlers leading to the cancellation of hundreds of flights. The T&G has warned that it would call a formal ballot on legal industrial action if the airline sacked the men, although it is not clear that the union would win a mandate for action.
More worryingly for the T&G, Mr Walsh believes that senior full-time officers of union were also involved in inciting this summer's unlawful stoppage.
Sources close to the airline predict management will today ban the T&G's air transport official Brendan Gold from its premises over allegations of his involvement in the strike.
British Airways lost up to £45m in August because of the wholesale cancellation of flights and the airline could sue the T&G for recovery of the loss if it were proved that the union's officers had privately incited the wildcat walkout. A legal award against the union could lead to its bankruptcy.
The T&G has already earmarked full-time jobs for the BA shop stewards if the union fails to persuade the airline to keep them on.
During its investigation of the walkout by baggage handlers, BA set up a confidential phone line so that employees could tell management how the strike was instigated.
Having collated hundreds of pages of evidence, the airline decided last month that the men had a "case to answer".
The situation arises at a highly sensitive time for the airline. Mr Walsh, who took over as chief executive in September from Sir Rod Eddington, needs union co-operation in dealing with a £1bn shortfall in its pension fund, but he also wants to show the T&G that he is tough-minded.
He is determined to introduce new working practices at Terminal Five, to which all BA operations at Heathrow will transfer in 2008. The introduction of new technology at T5 is expected to result in job losses among one-third of the 3,000 BA check-in staff at the airport. There is concern among employees that the move to T5 would have a "dramatic" impact on jobs.
Although Mr Walsh has promised there will be no compulsory redundancies, some union officials fear he may want to confront the T&G now over the Gate Gourmet affair to "soften it up" for T5 productivity talks.
Last month Gate Gourmet workers decided overwhelmingly to accept proposals to end their dispute. Of the 700 dismissed some 144 will not be taken back and will be made compulsorily redundant. The rest will either take voluntary severance or be taken back by the company. The union is seeking to persuade the 144 sacked workers to accept the terms, although some are arguing that they have been "sold out".
A spokesman for the airline said disciplinary proceedings against the three stewards were continuing and no conclusions had been reached. The investigation into the strike was still active.Reuse content