Disruption to BA flights will drag on after strike ends

The second strike by British Airways cabin crew, which begins this morning, is set to have a serious impact on the airline's operations even after industrial action ends on Tuesday. Research by The Independent reveals that at least 20 long-haul, wide-bodied flights to Heathrow next Wednesday have been cancelled - with the aircraft flown empty back to BA's London base.

The airline plans to run 55 per cent of short-haul flights to and from Heathrow, and 70 per cent of the long-haul operation, during the four-day strike called by the cabin crew union, Unite. Willie Walsh, BA's chief executive, said yesterday that at least three-quarters of passengers would travel as booked. But when outbound long-haul flights are cancelled because of the strike, a corresponding inbound flight several days later cannot operate because there are no cabin crew in position.

Yesterday it became clear than flights from many key long-haul destinations would be cancelled on Wednesday. Four of the nine daily flights from New York are axed from the schedule, together with other US departures from Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco and Washington.

These cities all have two or more daily BA flights, allowing some passengers to be accommodated on earlier or later departures. But the only flights of the day from Baltimore and Seattle have also been cancelled - and travellers from the Pacific Northwest considering Vancouver as an alternative will find the single daily flight from British Columbia's biggest city is also cancelled.

The aircraft that would normally operate all these services will be flown back empty, unless more crew than expected report for duty and the services can be re-opened for sale. A BA spokesman said “Last weekend we were able to open up many extra long-haul flights for sale around the world, which allowed several thousand customers to fly with us”.

The environmental harm caused by these "positioning" flights will add to the reputational damage cause by the bitter dispute over staffing levels and working practices.

Flights from some of BA's most lucrative routes elsewhere in the world have also been cancelled after the strike ends. Services due to leave Hong Kong, Johannesburg and Lagos have been axed on 31 March. In addition, the airline cancelled nearly 40 short-haul flights yesterday as contingency plans for the second strike took effect.

BA estimated that each day's action last weekend cost £7m. The financial damage from the second stoppage is likely to be less, because the airline plans a full service from its base at Gatwick. Last weekend, very few cabin crew at the Sussex airport took part in industrial action.

Yesterday the divide between management and union widened, over the issue of travel concessions. Striking cabin crew have received emails telling them that their entitlement to free or heavily discounted flights has been permanently withdrawn. Before the strike, Mr Walsh warned cabin crew that “When I said we will withdraw staff travel privileges for those who do strike, I meant it”.

Yesterday the joint general secretaries of Unite, Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson, told striking cabin crew that “ The withdrawal of travel concessions from crew who have been on strike represents unacceptable anti-union bullying”.

They insisted that “Any agreement to end this dispute must and will include a framework for the full restoration of those travel concessions." But Mr Walsh reiterated his determination on BBC Breakfast yesterday, saying “The decision will never be withdrawn. Travel perks are non-contractual. We have never negotiated on travel perks with the union and Tony Woodley knows that."

BA’s rivals continue to benefit from the airline’s industrial strife. Carriers such as Jet2, Astraeus and Air Finland are providing capacity to bolster the short-haul operation from Heathrow.

Of the 60,000 passengers that BA is unable to carry either on its own aircraft or one of these “wet-leased” planes, 43,000 have been transferred to other airlines. Another 17,000 have been told they cannot be accommodated, and been offered the choice of a refund or rebooking on future BA flights.

*Talks between unions and Network Rail about a four-day rail strike from 6 to 9 April will continue on Monday.

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