Third of flights cut as union warns of more strikes

British Airways claims that 75 per cent of its passengers take off, but Unite criticises airline for 'dumping' customers on other carriers
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The Independent Online

More than a third of all British Airways flights out of Heathrow were cancelled yesterday as the dispute between the airline and its cabin crew crippled Terminal 5 amid accusations of subterfuge.

The troubled airline claimed yesterday that more than 60 per cent of its daily roster of 1,350 staff turned up for work, but said 93 flights out of 276 were cancelled at Heathrow. The latest walkout over services and jobs is due to last until Tuesday.

Unite, the union that acts for cabin crew, intensified its assault on BA, warning of more strikes after Easter unless there is a breakthrough in an increasingly bitter row over cuts.

Both sides clashed over the impact of the latest walkout. The union said BA was playing a "con trick" in claiming that it was managing to carry 75 per cent of its customers.

Len McCluskey, Unite's assistant general secretary, said: "This is the great BA con trick. BA is claiming it can function, but it is doing so by throwing away millions of pounds every day as it dumps passengers on other carriers. Passengers who turn up expecting to fly BA, a brand they trust and have paid a premium for, will now be shipped on to carriers they've never heard of. Instead of fully trained professional crew, they'll be attended to by a ragbag bunch of pilots, managers and strike-breakers masquerading as crew. In its desperation to break its workforce, BA is inflicting another trashing on this brand."

Willie Walsh, BA's chief executive, carried out a one-man charm offensive yesterday by personally greeting passengers at Heathrow. Mr Walsh insisted that many passengers were supportive. "I am deeply sorry for those customers who have had their holidays and their plans disrupted. We have been able to minimise the impact, but, given this is a very busy time, we haven't been able provide alternative plans for all of our customers and I do very much regret that.

"We are absolutely committed to resolving this dispute with the trade union and returning British Airways to normal operations as soon as possible," he said.

The union claims that BA is going to extraordinary and expensive lengths create an "illusion" of normality. It claims the dispute is costing the airline £11m a day, including £4m in lost passenger revenue and £7m in pay-as-you-fly "wet lease" (an arrangement whereby the lessor provides at least some crew, maintenance and fuel) plane bills.

It claimed the airline planned to ground most of its Eurofleet operation, with passengers and revenue from key routes out of Heathrow to Geneva, Nice and Frankfurt handed over to eight wet-lease operators, including Viking airlines, Titan, Jet 2, Euro Atlantic, Astraeus, Iberia, OpenSkies and Air Finland.

Unite believes that BA is boosting its 340 volunteers with pilots freed up by the grounded Eurofleet operation, with around 90 flights going to leasing companies. But the corporation said 70 per cent of its long-haul and 55 per cent of its short-haul flights would operate out of Heathrow, with 75 per cent of customers travelling with BA between 27 and 30 March.

Airline officials said 180,000 of the 240,000 customers would fly as planned during the strike, while 18 per cent rebooked to other carriers or changed their travel dates.

"There will be cancellations at Heathrow throughout the four days, and for two days after the strike has ended, due to aircraft, pilots and cabin crew being out of position," a BA spokesman said. "We will do all we can to minimise the numbers of cancellations and will reinstate flights wherever possible if cabin crew come to work as normal," he added.

BA strike: Q&A

1. So what's their problem?

Since November last year BA has been cutting the number of cabin crew on its flights. Union members say the service is suffering as a result and are trying to negotiate smaller cuts. BA says the changes are vital because it is making record losses – nearly £300m in the first half of 2009 and that without cuts they won't survive. For years, BA has had some of the best staffing conditions in the industry and they argue that such generous terms are no longer viable if the airline is to continue.

2. Why is this all still rumbling on?

Because nobody can agree. BA chief Willie Walsh insists that the cuts are necessary to ensure the future of the company, and while union members have offered to compromise by cutting 1,000 crew, it doesn't seem to be enough. Perhaps that's because of the small matter of the airline's astronomical debt, but also because Walsh is keen not to be seen to be pandering to union pressure.

3. Hasn't it all got a bit petty now?

A bit, yes. But BA's losses are enough to make anyone jittery and it's also hard to blame cabin crew for trying to save their jobs.

4. What's the damage?

The disruption is costing the airline around £7m a day and one City analyst has estimated that the combined impact of the two strikes will cost them more than £100m.

5. And for travellers?

Nobody will get compensation if they have to fly with a rival airline, but they will be offered alternative BA flights.

6. And what about the strikers? What will they lose?

Aside from the lost wages during the strike, Walsh has now said they will lose their free and heavily discounted travel.

7. That wouldn't be that big a problem, would it?

Well, actually it will be for some people. According to Unite many crew whose homes are a long way from London rely on free travel to commute now that all BA's operations have been centralised in Heathrow. They also say removing this perk would violate UK employment law. But BA says these are discretionary rewards for staff and that they are within their rights to remove them.

8. What about the cost to the environment?

Eh? Nobody is even pretending they care about that.

9. Surely, with all the staff not working, there'll be fewer planes flying?

No, actually, the cancelled flights caused by the strikes will mean many planes will be forced to fly empty to be at the right airport for the next scheduled take-off.

10. So what's the carbon footprint of all that then?

Well BA doesn't yet know how many flights will have to leave with no passengers on board, but with 100 flights cancelled last weekend and a Boeing 747 using around five gallons of fuel per mile, it is not going to be small.

11. What about me? If I have a ticket, will I be able to fly?

That depends where you are. If your flight is from Gatwick or London City airport, then all planes are meant to be running as normal. Heathrow is another story – 70 per cent of long-haul flights will fly and 55 per cent of short-haul flights.

12. How will they get the planes off the ground at all?

Mostly by getting staff to cross picket lines and by flying planes with fewer cabin crew than normal. Ryanair has also offered to lease BA planes during the strike.

13. OK, but why would Ryanair help out BA. Aren't the two companies rivals?

For a start, it's good publicity for attention-loving Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary. It is also in his interests to look tough on strikers.

14. But how do planes solve the problem? Don't you need a certain number of cabin crew members before you can fly?

Yes, but they normally fly with more crew than is legally necessary (which is one of the bones of contention in the first place). For example, 12 cabin crew is the minimum on a departing Boeing 747, but BA normally operates with a minimum of 14.

15. And what about compensation if BA can't get me where I need to go?

If you cancel your flight you can get a full refund, but you're probably better off opting to book on another of its planes. The chances of compensation for inconvenience are next to none

16. Really? But what if the flight I'm offered isn't when I want?

Well, BA points out you can get a flight to the same destination at any point in the next 355 days, but if you end up having to go with another carrier, or getting massively delayed, you won't be compensated because BA says the strike is "beyond its reasonable control".

17. OK, but surely I can claim it on insurance, no?

Not necessarily, especially if you took out the policy after the strike was announced.

18. So why aren't other airlines striking this much? Don't BA staff get a pretty good package?

Their pay and benefits are seen as some of the best in the industry, but that's no good to the people who will now be losing jobs when crew numbers are cut.

19. Isn't BA in financial trouble anyway? What will this mean for the company now?

Yes, it's no coincidence that Ryanair's Michael O'Leary describes BA as "a big pension deficit on wings". If it cannot get through this strike, the loss-making company will be in dire financial straits.

20. So who wins in all this?

Good question. Certainly not the passengers, the crew, BA or the planet. Probably Virgin, Ryanair, easyJet and all the rival airlines who will get more bookings, thanks to BA's increasing reputation for getting involved in industrial action.

Emily Dugan