British Airways is facing an unprecedented campaign to poach its passengers – conducted by an airline which it part owns.
Europe's biggest regional airline, Flybe, has sent an email to thousands of frequent travellers headed "Beat the strike" and citing "the hassle and worry that British Airways might have to offer this December".
BA cabin crew are currently being balloted for strike action yet such provocative marketing is rare among mainstream airlines. While Ryanair is often happy to revel in its rivals' misfortunes, an unwritten understanding prevails among most carriers that they will not seek an advantage on matters such as safety and strike action.
Flybe, which was unavailable for comment yesterday, flies in the face of convention with a promise that "Flybe won't leave you stranded this Christmas ... Flybe will continue to operate over the Christmas period. Others may not."
The email goes on to say: "Make the right flight choice this December. If you are thinking of travelling over the Christmas period, no doubt you have already heard about the potential industrial action proposed by British Airways cabin crew which could leave thousands of their passengers from the South-east stranded as they try to fly from London to be closer to their family and friends over Christmas and New Year."
Almost 13,000 BA cabin crew belonging to Unite are voting on strike action. They are unhappy about a range of issues, notably new rosters unilaterally imposed by BA management on Heathrow cabin crew and plans to recruit new staff on inferior terms and conditions. The ballot result will be announced on 14 December. If, as is widely expected, there is a substantial majority in favour of a strike, the union is likely to announce strike dates at the same time. Any strike action would have to begin between 21 December and 11 January. Almost two million passengers are at risk of having their plans disrupted, even though past experience suggests any strike would last for only a couple of days, leaving the large majority of these travellers unaffected.
A BA spokesman said: "Holding a ballot does not mean that any industrial action will take place and any forecast of industrial action remains speculative. All of our flights are operating normally and it is very much business as usual."
Flybe is a privately owned airline but BA has a 15 per cent stake in the carrier. The two airlines also collaborate closely on "code-share" arrangements, in which BA sells trips with a BA flight number on Flybe services.
Paul Charles, director of communications for Virgin Atlantic, said: "I am sure there will be surprise in the BA boardroom that one of their own assets is actively encouraging customers to switch." He said Virgin had no plans to launch a similar campaign: "Passengers are naturally switching to other carriers – we don't need to waste our time and money on highlighting BA's strike issues."
BA maintains the ballot has had no impact on forward bookings, and a spokesman said: "We remain available to talk with the unions at any time."