Unite 'optimistic' as BA talks continue

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British Airways management and unions were holding emergency talks last night to avert a potentially crippling strike by cabin crew starting tomorrow.

The surprise move came after Gordon Brown and the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, appealed to the Unite union and BA to return to the negotiating table. But there was little sign of a breakthrough in the dispute over cost-cutting and staff levels, and the talks will continue today.

The airline claims that it will be able to fly nearly two-thirds of its passengers over the weekend because of crews volunteering to work. But the union insists that the three-day industrial action, which is to be followed by another four-day walkout next week, will be widely supported and the company has exaggerated the number of volunteers.

It has also been bolstered by the support of sister unions in the United States, Australia, France, Germany and Italy, raising the prospect of BA services being disrupted in foreign airports. As The Independent disclosed yesterday, the Government intervened in an attempt to soothe the increasingly acrimonious atmosphere.

The day-long talks between Willie Walsh, BA's chief executive, and Tony Woodley, the joint leader of Unite, continued into the evening. The union said it would suspend the action if the company put a previous offer back on the table. The proposal had been withdrawn by the company after Unite announced strike dates last week.

Business Secretary Lord Mandelson urged both sides to reach a solution that would avoid strike action, which he described as "needless" and "quite disproportionate" to the issues under dispute. He also dismissed opposition claims that Unite was able to dictate Government policy because of its £11m of donations to Labour and the close links of its political director Charlie Whelan – a former spokesman for Gordon Brown – with the party.

Mr Woodley said during a break in the negotiations: "We are at least talking – that's the good news. But at the moment there's only talks and certainly no breakthrough and no acceptable way forward for us. But I am still optimistic and that's why I'm going back."

BA sources have reportedly put the initial cost of the strike at £27m and disclosed that more than 100,000 passengers have cancelled their tickets. The company insists that heavy cost-cutting is essential to respond to the global financial crisis, competition from low-cost airlines and increasing fuel prices.

A company spokesman said yesterday that it would not be providing a "running commentary" on the negotiations with Unite.

Sadiq Khan, the Transport minister, told MPs: "Ministers continue to have dialogue with all sides to try to reach a resolution. Thousands of passengers will be inconvenienced if the strike goes ahead and I am keen to ensure we do all we can to resolve this dispute."

The second phase of industrial action is scheduled to begin on 27 March and Unite has warned that further strikes will then follow if the dispute is not settled.