British Airways today won a High Court legal battle brought in a last-ditch attempt to avert strikes by cabin crew.
The airline, facing mounting chaos because of the industrial dispute coupled with the volcanic ash cloud, went to court to urge a judge in London to grant an injunction blocking the strikes, due to start tomorrow.
Mr Justice McCombe granted the order against the union, Unite.
BA said: "We are delighted for our customers that Unite's plans for extreme and unjustified strike action cannot go ahead.
"We are sorry the court judgment cannot undo the disruption already suffered by some customers who were due to travel during the early days of the union's industrial action.
"As Unite knew, we had to announce last Thursday the rearrangement of our Heathrow schedule to give customers as much notice as possible about changes to their travel plans necessitated by the strike call.
"Ash disruption permitting, we will aim to restore a full flying programme at Heathrow by the weekend. We will also offer a full programme at Gatwick and London City, as planned.
"We hope all sections of Unite, including the leaders of the cabin crew branch Bassa, will take this opportunity to pause and focus on achieving the early and peaceful end to this dispute which the travelling public and all our employees want."
BA argued that Unite had not "properly complied" with the requirement to "send everyone eligible to vote details of the exact breakdown of the ballot result" and that, as a result, the strike action was "unlawful".
While expressing sympathy for the union and its members, the judge said: "I am unable to say it is sufficiently clear that the union took the steps required by law at the time they were required."
He said the "balance of convenience" in his view required the granting of an injunction.
During the proceedings today, David Reade QC, for BA, told the judge that his application was for interim relief - an injunction - "seeking to restrain the defendant trade union from inducing breaches of contract in respect of a strike".
Members of Unite were due to walk out from May 18-22 inclusive, then from May 24-28, May 30-June 3 and June 5-9, the last strike ending just days before the start of the football World Cup in South Africa.
The judge refused the union permission to appeal although it can renew its application to the Court of Appeal.
Its QC, John Hendy, told the judge that it was possible that the Court of Appeal would consider the case tomorrow.
Unite's national officer Steve Turner said the union was very disappointed with the result and would immediately appeal against the decision.
"It's an affront to democracy and our members and we will be fighting back tomorrow."
He confirmed that, as the situation currently stood, all the strikes would be called off.
"We have no regrets. We believe we complied specifically with the requirements of the law.
"This is a global workforce of 12,500 people and we used tried and tested methods.
"It's an affront to our members, hard-working decent members of our community, and democracy within this country when the judiciary and the law can rule in such a fashion."
Unite sent text messages to its cabin crew members at BA tonight urging them to work normally in view of the judgment, and saying that the union planned to appeal against the decision.
Copies of the injunction were sent to all workplaces by the union.
Joint leaders Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson said: "This judgment is an absolute disgrace and will rank as a landmark attack on free trade unionism and the right to take industrial action.
"Its implication is that it is now all but impossible to take legally-protected strike action against any employer who wishes to seek an injunction on even the most trivial grounds.
"Because of the far-reaching consequences of this injunction for all trade unions and indeed for our democracy, we are seeking leave to appeal immediately. It need hardly be said that this brings the prospect of a settlement to the dispute with British Airways not one day closer.
"However, we will of course comply with the injunction, and will be immediately telling our cabin crew members, who have three times voted against the company's conduct by overwhelming majorities, to work normally and not take or threaten any industrial action."
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said: "This decision is good news for passengers. However, more strikes are planned and I have met with British Airways and Unite today and made it clear that both parties must get back round the negotiating table urgently.
"I want them to use this breathing space to resolve this dispute, both to avoid disruption to passengers and to safeguard the future of the airline.
"I understand how difficult it can be when people's jobs have to change, but a prolonged series of strikes will be self-defeating. They will weaken the company and ultimately put those jobs at risk."
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "This is a desperately worrying judgment. A strike that clearly has majority support has been turned over on a tiny technicality. This - and other recent decisions - begin to make it look as if there is no effective right to strike in today's Britain.
"Just as you do not have to agree with what people say to defend their freedom of speech, the right to take peaceful industrial action goes far wider than any particular dispute and is a hallmark of a free society.
"All fair-minded people should see that fundamental freedoms are now being eroded."
Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, which also called off industrial action after a legal challenge earlier this year, said: "Today's decision effectively outlaws strike action. It's another turn of the screw of the anti-union laws."
Unite said in its message to members: "BA have obtained an injunction from the court preventing us from taking the above industrial action. Members must neither threaten nor take any industrial action during this period, and must work normally.
"All officers and representatives of the union must do their best to ensure this message is passed on to all affected members without delay. We are appealing the decision."
Flights will still be affected for the rest of the week despite the injunction, with half of short-haul and 40 per cent of long-haul services from Heathrow set to be hit because it is too late to reinstate a full service.