BA travellers facing Christmas strike misery

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The Independent Travel

Hundreds of thousands of British Airways passengers face travel misery over the busy Christmas and New Year period after cabin crew voted Monday to strike over job cuts and pay.

The industrial action comes at a critical point for loss-making British Airways, which is slashing costs and attempting to merge with Spanish carrier Iberia in a fight to stay competitive against its rivals.

"After long discussions... we are planning to withdraw our labour for a period of 12 days starting 22nd December," Britain's biggest trade union Unite said in a statement after staff voted 9-1 in favour of striking.

The announcement is a major blow for BA passengers that are planning to fly worldwide with the British airline over the festive period to visit friends and relatives. BA had carried 2.34 million passengers in November.

"We do not take the decision to strike lightly, especially during the financial strife that the company finds itself in," Unite said in the statement.

A total of 10,288 cabin crew voted with 92.49 percent in favour of strike action.

The union complained that BA management were in a hurry to cut short-term costs and were ignoring the longer-term impact on BA customers.

"The company is now in a head long rush to slash costs in the short term with no regard to the long term effects this will have," Unite said.

BA fought back, slamming Unite's "cynical decision".

"British Airways is extremely disappointed that Unite is planning massive disruption for hundreds of thousands of our customers over the Christmas/New Year holiday period," it said in a statement.

"A 12-day strike would be completely unjustified and a huge over-reaction to the modest changes we have announced for cabin crew which are intended to help us recover from record financial losses.

"Unite's cynical decision betrays a total lack of concern for our customers, our business and other employees within British Airways."

BA last month revealed that net losses quadrupled to 217 million pounds in the group's first half, or six months to September.

The airline had also announced it will cut an extra 1,200 jobs - taking the total planned reduction to 4,900 by 2010.

Ahead of Monday's vote result, BA chief executive Willie Walsh had admitted that he was bracing himself for "bad news".

BA also revealed Monday that its pension deficit had ballooned to 3.7 billion pounds (4.1 billion euros, 6.0 billion dollars), a 76-percent increase compared to the level in 2006, causing the airline to seek a "recovery plan."

The huge shortfall risks scuppering BA's proposed tie-up with Iberia, which has the right to walk away should BA fail to resolve the problem.

The merger was seen by analysts as a move to avoid being sidelined by rivals Air France-KLM and Lufthansa, as the economic downturn and the rise of low-cost airlines drives airline alliances and steep cost cutting.

A combination of BA and Iberia would create one of the world's biggest airlines, as the two groups grapple with huge losses amid falling demand for air travel.