The threat of a pre-Christmas strike by British Airways cabin crew increased today when a ballot for industrial action was announced among almost 14,000 workers.

Unite said its members at the airline will vote on whether to launch a campaign of action in protest over the imposition of the employment contracts.

BA said it was "extremely disappointed" at the move insisting it was not planning to change terms and conditions of current crew.

But Unite said it had "no alternative" but to ballot its members in a bid to persuade BA not to impose "unacceptable contractual changes".

Joint leader Derek Simpson said: "We will strongly support our members if they vote for industrial action, while of course remaining ready to negotiate with the company.

"Negotiation, not imposition, is the only proper way to conduct industrial relations."

Cabin crew had already decided to hold an emergency meeting next Monday to decide whether to fight plans to cut jobs, freeze pay and introduce worse wages and conditions for new staff.

Thousands of workers are expected to attend the meeting, at Sandown Racecourse in Surrey, two weeks before the cuts come into effect.

Two former sections of the Transport and General Workers Union - Bassa and Cabin Crew 89 - have joined forces for the first time in more than 20 years to hold the joint meeting.

BA chief executive Willie Walsh met with Unite leaders earlier this month after which the airline issued a statement which said: "The discussion, about cabin crew pay and productivity issues, was open and frank."

Unite have complained that the changes being introduced next month constituted a "fundamental attack" on the jobs, wages and career prospects of all cabin crew members of the union.

"They will not only hit the customer service core of the business, but will forever undermine BA's international reputation as a premier airline with premier crew providing a premier service.

"You are now being bullied into the very real possibility of accepting inferior contracts in just a few weeks' time," union leaders said in a letter to workers earlier this month.

"While we accept these are tough times for aviation generally, we do not accept that this is a company on its knees. This is still a prestigious airline with a high reputation to uphold not only at home, but also around the globe."

BA has announced plans to cut staff numbers by 3,700, in addition to a reduction of around 2,500 achieved between June 2008 and March 2009.

The airline said in a statement: "We have put together a package of changes, which despite the unprecedented financial circumstances facing the company, not only protects current cabin crew but also offers many new benefits.

"We have made it clear that there will be no change to the individual terms and conditions of our current crew. They will not take a pay cut. In fact some 75 per cent of crew will receive a pay scale increase worth between 2 per cent and 7 per cent this year and again next year.

"Our current cabin crew remain the best paid in the country by some way.

"Our changes in onboard crew numbers allow us to accept a large number of requests for a range of voluntary options, including voluntary redundancy, a switch to part-time working and a transfer between fleets. We are now also able to offer crew promotion opportunities for the first time in three years.

"These changes follow lengthy consultation and will go ahead from November 16, 2009 as planned.

"Our proposed new rates of pay for potential new crew would be ahead of the market rate. Last week, we agreed to listen to any alternative proposals from Unite, given that we will not be recruiting new crew for some time until the business is in a position to grow.

"Unite has responded to our offer with a ballot for industrial action.

"We started talking to Unite nine months ago. We remain available to meet our unions at any time in a genuine attempt to protect our customers, our company and our cabin crew from this unnecessary and unjustified action by Unite."

Steve Turner, national officer of Unite, said the union had put forward proposals months ago which would produced substantial savings, but they had been rejected by BA.

"These cost savings were not acceptable to them, but imposing changes is not acceptable to our members, who are fed up with the way they are being treated by this Draconian management."