Fresh row as BA prepares for more strike action

A fresh row between British Airways and the union representing its cabin crew flared tonight as the airline prepared for another strike in a bitter row over jobs and cost-cutting.

The company said it would fly more than 75% of customers booked to travel during the four days of strike action which begin tomorrow, adding that it expected to handle more than 180,000 of the 240,000 people who had planned to travel from March 27-30.

BA said a further 18% have been re-booked to travel on other carriers, or changed the dates of their BA flights to avoid the strike period.

Meanwhile Unite claimed that the dispute may be costing the airline far more than the City, its shareholders and its investors realised, warning that the financial and reputation damage to BA was far in excess of what the company has acknowledged.

The union said the seven-day dispute would cost the airline around £100 million, twice the £7 million a day that BA told the City about earlier this week.

BA reiterated that it told the Stock Exchange on Monday that the "current best estimate" of the cost of the first round of strikes was £7 million a day, and that assessment of the cost of subsequent strikes would only be possible after they had taken place.

The airline said several thousand customers had brought forward their departures to today to avoid the impact of the strike.

BA said that, over the next four days, it would fly a full, normal schedule from Gatwick and London City Airports.

At Heathrow, BA said it would operate 70% of its long-haul programme (up from 60% in the first strike period from March 20-22) and 55% of its short-haul programme (up from 30%).

BA chief executive Willie Walsh said: "The vast majority of BA staff, including thousands of cabin crew, are pulling together to serve our customers and keep our flag flying.

"At the same time, I feel really sorry for those customers whose plans have been ruined by the Unite union's completely unjustified action. Despite the union's promises, this strike has affected the Easter holiday plans of thousands of hard-working people."

Mr Walsh stood firm on the airline's decision to withdraw travel perks from striking cabin crew, saying that staff knew they would lose their travel concessions if they joined the three-day walkout last weekend.

Unite has accused BA of "unacceptable anti-union bullying" by taking away the travel perks, but Mr Walsh denied this.

The union has insisted that any peace deal must now include giving back travel concessions to cabin crew, as well as reinstating a number of staff who have been suspended as a result of the dispute.

Mr Walsh rejected suggestions the withdrawal of concessions was a "punishment" or attempt to "break the union", adding: "We told them about the consequences if they went on strike."

Mr Walsh said he remained available for talks, adding that he had met TUC general secretary Brendan Barber earlier this week.

A Unite spokesman said: "We remain in touch with the TUC regarding the possibility of talks but nothing is planned at present.

"All BA strike-breaking statistics should not be regarded as credible after last weekend's smokescreen."

The union today called on the investment community to play its part in bringing about a negotiated settlement.

"The union calls again for BA and its board to stop this self-inflicted trashing of its brand and work with Unite on a sensible, negotiated agreement which will be money in the bank for shareholders, and will keep a world-famous brand airborne," the union said in a briefing.

"It would seem that the analysts' estimates of a daily loss of £15-20 million may be correct. If you add together the cost of lost bookings, of revenue effectively transferred to other airlines along with BA passengers, the cost of wet-leased aircraft (leasing fully crewed aircraft from other firms) and the cost of knock-on post-strike disruption, this is the ball-park area we are in.

"Over three days of strikes we could then conservatively estimate the total cost at around £45 million. Over seven days of strikes, this dispute will therefore have cost British Airways over £100 million.

"This is a staggering amount to be spent on an avoidable dispute. It begs the obvious question: why is BA spending so much?

"Unite believes that the company has embarked on an ambitious and expensive attempt to destroy trade unionism among its cabin crew."

Mr Walsh has strongly denied that he was trying to "smash" the union, arguing that talks over savings have dragged on for over a year and stressing his willingness to meet with Unite.

Picket lines will again be mounted outside Heathrow and other airports this weekend.

The union has ruled out strikes over Easter but has warned of fresh action from April 14 if the deadlock is not broken.

BA said today that a member of its long haul cabin crew at Heathrow had been dismissed for gross misconduct after claims of bullying, intimidation and harassment of another member of staff.

"It is entirely appropriate and reasonable for us to investigate serious allegations of bullying and harassment against our staff.

"We will not tolerate intimidation of our staff and any reports of staff being threatened will be thoroughly investigated," said a spokesman.

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