British Airways staff who overturned a legal block on a series of five-day strikes are to walk out again within days, delaying tens of thousands of passengers.
With no end in sight to one of the most bitter industrial disputes of recent years, the crew's union, Unite, announced a five-day stoppage on Monday after winning Court of Appeal backing that it had lawfully called walk-outs in May and June.
The High Court had ruled that the union had failed to meet legal requirements on the disclosure of a strike ballot result, in which 81 per cent of staff supported industrial action.
Rejecting that ruling yesterday, two Court of Appeal Judges said that while Unite may have fallen short of all its legal duties it would be wrong to thwart the desire of staff to take strike action on the basis of a "technicality". A third judge, the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, agreed with BA.
The ruling means Unite may carry out its threat of holding a series of five-day stoppages. Earlier this month it called four strikes lasting 20 days.
Setting out a new timetable for three five-day strikes, Unite said that the first would begin next Monday with a one day pause before the second walk out on 30 May.
A third strike is planned for 5-9 June, ending two days before the start of football World Cup in South Africa.
A majority of Unite's 10,000 BA cabin crew first voted for a strike in December in protest at BA's imposition of new contracts which would change working practices for cabin crew, including reducing staffing from 15 to 14 on long-haul flights.
The sides are thought to be close to resolving that argument but the dispute has been inflamed by BA's withdrawal of travel perks from crew who took strike action in March and its alleged sacking or suspension of almost 60 union members.
Staff irritation grew when BA secured a High Court injunction on Monday preventing the start of a strike the next day. The Judge Mr Justice McCombe said he was unable to say the union took all the steps required by law, including notification of 11 spoilt ballots among the 9,282 ballots cast.
Allowing Unite's appeal, the country's top judge, Lord Judge, said BA had demonstrated the union could have done more to meet the terms of the 1992 Trade Union Act but "crucially", he added, BA had "failed to persuade me that what was done was insufficient to amount to compliance with the requirements".
Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, stressed that the strike would have to be resolved by negotiation. He said: "Legal processes do not constitute mediation. On the contrary they often serve to inflame rather than mollify the feelings of those involved."
Lady Justice Smith, who also upheld the appeal, echoed the sentiments. Lord Neuberger, while stressing he was not making a comment on the merit of the strike, deemed that the union had not prudently given all crew the right information as soon as possible.
A group of Unite activists cheered loudly outside the court in London when they heard the result, singing: "We are the champions."
Unite's joint leader Derek Simpson hailed a "a sensible decision" against BA's "minor, almost irrelevant" case but warned that it was not a time for triumphalism.
He appealed for the airline, headed by the combative chief executive Willie Walsh, to make a new offer, saying the sides were only a "sliver" away from agreement. "We call on BA to go that extra mile and stop these side issues.
"We will not strike before Monday – we hope we don't have to strike at all," he said.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber welcomed "an important victory", which he said marked a halt to a recent run of legal judgments where employers had persuaded the courts to prevent staff from exercising their right to strike. Corinna Ferguson, of the human rights group Liberty, said big business should not be allowed to "play technical games in court".
BA, which has been undercut by low budget airlines which pay their staff less, said it was "very disappointed" by the ruling. In a statement it said: "We are confident that thousands of cabin crew will ignore Unite's strike call and help us fly more than 70 per cent of the customers who were booked to fly with us in the period targeted," it said. "Unite's strikes have failed twice and they will fail again."
The privatised former flag carrier hopes to run more than half of flights from Heathrow and all of its services at Gatwick and London City airports. If it flies 70 per cent of customers during the five-day periods, it will still have to cancel flights for more than 100,000 passengers. It has made contingency arrangements with 50 rival operators to carry its passengers.
BA says it is determined to prevail in the dispute, despite the financial cost, describing it as a battle for the future of the company. It lost £40-45m from seven days of strikes in March and is expected to lose tens of millions more from the latest wave. Analysts expect it to post losses of £600m when it announces annual results today.