Simon Calder: Saga has been a huge boost for BA's rivals

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Stress, unpredictability and exhaustion: that's what working as BA cabin crew can involve.

And thanks to their union, it is also what around three million passengers have involuntarily experienced even before a strike has begun. Since the union, Unite, acquired an overwhelming mandate for industrial action, the term "flight confirmed" on a British Airways ticket has looked increasingly meaningless.

For easyJet, Virgin Atlantic and every other airline in competition with British Airways, Christmas has lasted for almost three glorious months. They started picking up BA's passengers on 14 December last year, when Unite triumphantly announced a 12-day strike aimed at grounding British Airways over Christmas and New Year. Even though that was overturned by a High Court judge, the threat of industrial action has continued to persuade those with a pressing business trip, family event or dream holiday to adopt the ABBA principle: Anybody But British Airways.

Airlines are inordinately susceptible to even a hint of industrial action: whenever there is a whiff of a possible walkout, travel agents and tour operators switch clients to other carriers rather than risk the stress and expense of rebooking if a strike is called.

In no previous dispute has the threat of a stoppage dragged on for so long, jeopardising travellers' plans and eroding the British Airways brand. Since December, Unite has wrought massive financial damage on the forward bookings and reputation of an airline already losing £1m a day.

In any normal industry such attrition would be commercially catastrophic. But BA's management knows that aviation bears little relation to real life. The airline's dominance at Heathrow – the world's favourite airport, believe it or not – makes BA armour-plated. While some angry passengers will switch permanently to other airlines, most are fickle enough to be lured back by the deep discounts BA will offer once the dispute is settled.

When will that be, and what shape will the ceasefire take? I may be wrong – not for the first time – but I would place money on it being over by Easter. British Airways has had three months to watch its rivals poach customers, but it has also had three months to recruit what the union calls "scab labour" to run a respectable operation.

Time for a showdown at the BA corral. Every offer the airline has made in the past year is now off the table. Any steward or stewardess who fails to report at Heathrow or Gatwick for their rostered flight next weekend risks losing all their travel privileges, forever. And the next time BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, meets Unite officials, he intends to be accepting the union's surrender.

Like the Schleswig-Holstein Question, everyone has lost track of what this dispute is about. The cabin crew are understandably resentful of more arduous duties, but the cost of maintaining solidarity for a cause that looks elusive – if not already lost – is sky high.

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