British Airways strike called off

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The threat of travel chaos to tens of thousands of holidaymakers was lifted today when a planned strike by British Airways workers was called off.

Unions representing baggage handlers and check-in staff at airports, including Heathrow and Gatwick, agreed a pay deal with managers to head off the 24 hour walkout.

Thousands of workers were due to strike next Friday, which would have grounded hundreds of flights and cost the airline millions of pounds.

BA said it was relieved that holidaymakers would not be affected and started taking bookings again for what is traditionally one of the busiest weekends of the year.

BA has agreed an 8.5% pay increase over three years as well as £1,000 payable in three lump sum payments between now and September 2006.

The deal was agreed in the early hours of today after four days of tough negotiations between the company and union officials.

Leaders of the Transport and General Workers Union and the GMB will now recommend the deal in fresh ballots of BA workers.

The agreement follows acceptance by the unions of what BA described as a company-wide sickness absence policy which will be introduced immediately.

Under the new policy, BA will aim to reduce the present level of sickness absence from an average of 17 days per worker every year to 10 days within 12 months.

Mike Street, BA's Director of Operations, said: "I am delighted our customers can now look forward to their holidays without fear of strike action.

"The agreed policy of absence is tough on those persistent absentees while remaining compassionate towards the genuinely sick.

"We can afford this deal because of the absence policy which we estimate will save BA £30 million a year.

"The new policy will closely monitor individuals' patterns of absence within strict time periods.

"Those will persistent patterns of absence not linked to genuine illness will be liable to disciplinary action."

Brendan Gold, chief negotiator of the TGWU, said tonight: "We are pleased that holidaymakers can now relax and pack for their summer break.

"The union is pleased we have a deal on pay which recognises the contribution of our members to BA's continued recovery."

Mr Gold said his union had been talking to the company for the last six months on the "complex issues" surrounding absence levels.

He claimed that BA had confused the pay talks by trying to link them to absence levels although he praised managers for listening to union arguments.

"This deal provides the period of stability the company was looking for."

BA earlier announced it had stopped taking bookings for the Bank Holiday weekend because of the threatened disruption.

Around 100,000 people will travel with BA every day over the Bank Holiday weekend and a strike would have cost the airline an estimated £10 million per day.

Workers belonging to the two trade unions voted for industrial action in separate ballots.