Air passengers face travel misery as BA strike starts

British Airways cabin crew started a five-day strike Monday, throwing travel plans for thousands of passengers into disarray after last-ditch efforts to avert the action collapsed.

Staff walked out at midnight (2300 GMT) in the first of a series of strikes in a long-running industrial standoff.

The airline rebuffed late Sunday an 11th-hour offer from Britain's biggest union to call off the walkout in exchange for meeting a key demand, accusing the union of refusing to meet for talks.

No discussions had been held between the two sides in the dispute since they broke down on Saturday.

Tony Woodley, joint head of the union Unite, came forward with the last-minute offer to halt the action.

"As a sign of goodwill and good faith I am making this offer now to (BA chief executive) Willie Walsh," he told reporters.

"Willie, turn round and reinstate our people's travel (benefits) ... and this union will call off" the strike.

But BA responded it had already offered to hand back travel concessions as part of a deal.

"We have already offered to reinstate travel concessions to cabin crew once all elements of our offer have been implemented," said a statement from the airline.

It also accused Woodley of "negotiating through the media" rather than talking to them directly through ACAS, an organisation dedicated to resolving employment disputes.

"We had agreed to a request from ACAS to meet (Sunday) afternoon and are surprised that Unite did not take advantage of this," said the airline.

While BA and Unite have reached broad agreement on pay, the sticking point is now the heavily discounted flights available to off-duty cabin crew - key perks which have been taken away from workers who have gone on strike.

Negotiations to try and halt the planned strike were abandoned on Saturday after dozens of noisy protestors stormed the building where talks were being held.

Walsh was harangued by protestors, television pictures showed, and police said they had to escort him from the building in London after the security breach.

Walsh has faced accusations that he is trying to break the unions at BA and Unite accuses BA of imposing changes on cabin crew and refusing to negotiate openly and fairly.

The BA chief executive, though, insists that the airline is struggling for its very existence.

Monday's strike is hot on the heels of BA posting a record annual pre-tax loss of 531 million pounds (609 million euros, 765 million dollars) on slumping sales.

The airline, which is slashing costs and merging with Spanish rival Iberia in a bid to return to profitability, has been hit hard by the global economic downturn which has decreased demand for air travel.

It also faced a tough start to the current financial year due to the recent closure of airspace across Europe caused by ash from an Icelandic volcano. A week-long shutdown in April was the biggest in Europe since World War II.

BA staff are also planning two further five-day strikes starting on May 30 and June 5.

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