British Airways cabin crew voiced their anger today over the company's plans to cut jobs, pay and conditions as the threat of a strike just days before Christmas was raised.

Up to 2,000 members of Unite travelled from across the world to attend a mass meeting which was set to back calls for industrial action.

Workers spoke of their "anger and frustration" at the planned imposition of new employment contracts from 16 November on top of thousands of job cuts and a pay freeze.

One cabin crew worker said before the meeting, held at the Sandown Park racecourse in Esher, Surrey: "We are not militant trade unionists looking for a confrontation. We are all decent people from middle England, some would say middle class, just wanting to protect our living and look after our families."

Another worker, who has also been at BA for 20 years, said: "We are all very proud of the jobs we do, providing a great service to customers. But this is now a battle for the heart and soul of BA's cabin crew."

The cabin crew workers who spoke were unwilling to give their names because BA had warned them they faced possible disciplinary action, they said.

Unite has already announced plans to ballot more than 13,000 of its members for industrial action, although it has not yet given details of when voting will start or end.

Sources said today that industrial action could start any time after 20 December, traditionally one of the busiest periods of the year for air travel.

Steve Turner, Unite's national officer, who will address the mass meeting, said: "People here are feeling very angry and frustrated at BA's action.

"They find it inexplicable given all the hard work they put in and all the efforts we have made as a union to suggest savings which the company has disregarded up to now."

Mr Turner said it was not a traditional dispute because the union was not making any demands, it was merely seeking to minimise the "damage" being imposed on their members.

Mr Turner also warned that other groups of workers based inside terminals such as check-in and transfer staff could also become involved in the dispute.

If the cabin crew do go on strike it will be the first walkout of its kind since 1997 when BA's employees went on strike for three days.

A threatened strike was averted at the last minute two years ago but union officials said cabin crew were prepared to take industrial action because of the way they were being treated.

BA said it had announced changes to cabin crew numbers so it could accept more than one thousand requests for voluntary redundancy and more than 3,000 for part-time working.

The airline said it had been negotiating with Unite for more than nine months, adding: "BA is facing very difficult economic conditions and is heading for a second successive year of financial losses for the first time in our history.

"Everyone within the company knows we must reduce our costs to move back towards profitability."

Workers arrived for the mass meeting throughout the morning leading to a delay in starting because of a build up of traffic.

Some workers wore their BA uniforms while others had T-shirts bearing the slogan United We Stand.

A handful of female workers brought young children with them.

A selection of music was played before the meeting started including the Manic Street Preachers' If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next and Little Willie by The Sweet, a light-hearted reference to BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh.