Strikes leave passengers grounded – but insults fly between BA and Unite

Willie Walsh 'shocked' at union boss's Twitter updates during talks

Dozens of flights from Heathrow were cancelled yesterday as members of British Airways cabin crew set up picket lines outside the airport as part of their long running dispute with the airline.

BA bosses claimed to be pleased by the numbers of staff who turned up to work despite the strike, although they could not say whether any of those working were members of Unite, the union involved. Announcements on the airline's own website showed that at least 133 scheduled flights were cancelled.

Yesterday was the first day of four five-day stoppages planned by the union. The strikers, who are members of the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association (Bassa), a branch of Unite, set up headquarters at 8am at the Bedfont football ground near Heathrow.

They were due for a morale-boosting visit from Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, joint general secretaries of Unite – but ironically the union leaders had to postpone for a day because of "travel difficulties".

Meanwhile, a furious argument raged on the internet about the revelation over the weekend that Mr Simpson, an old-style union organiser who is close to retirement age, is now an ardent user of Twitter.

His messages on the site have been blamed for giving away the fact that the union and BA management were in talks over the weekend, which were then forced to break up when about 200 demonstrators waving banners provided by the far-left Socialist Workers Party barged into the offices of the conciliation service Acas on the 23rd floor of Euston Tower and surrounded BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh.

Mr Walsh said he was "shocked and angry" to learn that Mr Simpson had been posting messages online while they talked. Mr Woodley, in what some interpreted as a rebuke for his fellow general secretary, said yesterday that the invasion had had a "catastrophic" impact on negotiations.

Mr Simpson spent much of yesterday answering Twitter messages from angry members of the public – and from his union. One said: "You were in confidential talks, you moron. Confidential! Resign now." Another called him a "mindless" and "intellectually challenged". Eventually Mr Simpson wrote: "OK folks, no more reacting to bad tweeters, made my point."

The dispute began when BA – which recently announced a pre-tax loss of £531m for last year – said that it wanted to reduce its number of full-time cabin crew by 1,700 out of about 13,400, by taking 1,000 voluntary redundancies and making hundreds of full-time staff part-time.

When Unite cabin crew staged a strike in February, BA cancelled their travel perks and sacked seven employees for matters of discipline. They included Duncan Holley, the leader of Bassa, who has continued to speak for the strikers in public, although he is not now employed by the airline.

Since then, Mr Walsh has pursued what the union has called a "divide and rule" tactic, blaming the trouble on Mr Holley and other militant shop stewards and appealing to Unite's national leadership to get them under control.

He has offered to restore lost travel perks when the dispute is settled, but not on the old terms. The union is demanding full restoration of those perks and the cancellation of what it calls "vindictive" disciplinary measures imposed by the company.

Last night, BA said "keep the flag flying" was being painted along the fuselages of its aircraft to underline the message that it will continue to fly during the strikes. The message is being daubed on 10 Boeing 777s at Heathrow and two at Gatwick.

The airline said in a statement: "Our operations around the world have got off to a good start. The numbers of cabin crew reporting at Heathrow are currently at the levels we need to operate our published schedule."

Four out of eight scheduled flights to Paris, four out of seven to Munich, two of 13 flights to Madrid and two out of four to Athens were among yesterday's casualties.

Two out of seven flights to Nice, three out of seven to Barcelona, one of four to Lisbon, two of three to Warsaw in Poland, one of three to Moscow, one of three to Istanbul and four of seven to Munich were also cancelled.