BA cabin crew strikes 'self defeating', warns new Transport Secretary Philip Hammond

The new Transport Secretary today warned that a series of strikes by British Airways cabin crew would be "self defeating" as the airline revealed plans to run at least half its flights from Heathrow Airport during the first wave of action next week.

Philip Hammond said strikes were not the best way to resolve the bitter dispute over jobs, pay and staffing levels, adding that he hoped to meet BA managers soon to discuss the row.

Speaking on his first full day in office, Mr Hammond said: "The strikes are going to be very self defeating and I would urge the union and the management to get around the table as soon as possible."

Many of those involved in the dispute live in Mr Hammond's Runnymede and Weybridge constituency near Heathrow Airport, and the minister said he understood the implications of a changing economy and realised that aviation was a global and highly competitive industry.

He warned: "A strike would be extremely bad news for the UK economy and potentially for the airline as well as the people who work there."

BA said it intended to operate more than 60% of long-haul and over 50% of short-haul services from Heathrow during the first five-day walkout from next Tuesday.

Unite is planning four strikes of five days each, with just one day between, disrupting services for more than 20 days.

The airline said it planned to fly more than 60,000 customers each day of the strikes next week, adding that Gatwick and London City airports will not be affected by the industrial action.

Most of its revised short-haul schedule at Heathrow will be operated by BA's own aircraft and cabin crew, supplemented by leasing up to eight aircraft with pilots and cabin crews from five different airlines from the UK and Europe.

British Airways has also made arrangements with more than 50 other carriers so it can rebook customers during the strike period on to their flights, if they had been due to travel on a BA service which has been cancelled.

The airline said it was still available to hold further talks with Unite but wanted customers to have early warning of its flying schedule to allow sufficient time for alternative travel arrangements to be made.

Customers flying to or from Heathrow on a long-haul flight between May 18 and May 23 can check their bookings on to see if their flight is still operating.

The revised short-haul Heathrow schedule between May 18 and May 23 will be available for customers tomorrow.

Willie Walsh, BA's chief executive, said: "Unite's leaders have deliberately targeted the busy half-term holidays to cause as much disruption as possible for hard-working families looking to spend some well-earned time away.

"We are confident that many crew will ignore Unite's pointless strike call and support the efforts of the airline to keep our customers flying.

"As the new Government starts addressing the enormous economic challenges facing the country, it is sad that Unite's priority is to seek to damage Britain's links with the world."

Mr Walsh said BA had made a "very fair" offer to the union to resolve a 15-month dispute, maintaining that the airline had compromised "many times" in a bid to get a deal.

"Our cabin crews are voting with their feet. Due to the numbers of cabin crew who are telling us they want to work normally since Unite's latest strike call, the schedule will be slightly larger than we had originally anticipated.

"We will fly tens of thousands of customers around the world on business trips and family holidays every day that a strike takes place. Many thousands more can be rebooked on to alternative BA flights or on to rival airlines.

"I understand the deep frustration that customers who are booked from May 24 onwards must feel towards Unite. The union knew full well we could not publish a revised flying programme at Heathrow across a 23-day period in one go. We will do all we can to give customers more clarity about their specific flight once we start to understand how many cabin crew are willing to work as normal.

"We remain absolutely determined to resolve the dispute and our door remains open to Unite, day or night. It is not too late for Unite to call off this action and protect its members' job security."

BA carried 130,000 passengers during the first three-day strike in March and 226,000 during a subsequent four-day walkout, so the airline is planning to fly many more of its customers next week.

The airline said the days in between the four blocks of strikes meant it was effectively a 23-day walkout in the run-up to the World Cup, which will disrupt a school break, business trips and "hard-earned" holidays.

Tony Woodley, joint leader of Unite, said: "The question the BA board should be asking themselves is not how many planes will operate but what is the cost of this strike to the company? BA needs to talk to get this settled."

The strikes are due to be held on May 18-22 inclusive, May 24-28, May 30-June 3 and June 5-9, the last day of action coming just two days before the start of the World Cup in South Africa.