The threat of strikes by thousands of airport workers which could have caused travel chaos for holidaymakers was averted last night.

Talks between leaders of the Unite union and bosses from the airport operator BAA led to a new pay offer which will be recommended for acceptance. Unite said a "much improved" offer had been tabled and workers at Heathrow, Stansted, Southampton, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen airports will be urged to accept the deal.

The meeting, which was chaired by the conciliation service Acas, was held at an undisclosed location and followed a vote by Unite members in favour of industrial action in protest at a 1 per cent pay offer.

Unite said its members had accepted a wage freeze last year and co-operated with changes to their pension scheme, so deserved a bigger pay rise. Ferrovial, the Spanish owners of BAA, had offered an additional 0.5 per cent, but this was conditional on changes to the firm's sickness agreement, said the union. Around half of the 6,000 workers balloted by Unite voted, with 74.1 per cent of those who did opting for strike action.

Last night, Unite's national officer Brian Boyd said BAA had tabled a "much improved" offer and workers at the airports would be urged to accept the deal. "Details of the agreement will be made public once BAA staff have been advised of the improved offer," he added. Peter Harwood, chief conciliator at Acas, said the talks had been "challenging" but was pleased that the basis of a deal had been agreed.

The Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said: "Strike action over a bank holiday would have been hugely damaging to the country. Passengers will be relieved that they are now able to go on holiday without the fear of disruption from strikes."

In a statement a spokesman for BAA said: "We are pleased that the basis of an agreement has been reached on pay, that is fair to staff but which also reflects the difficult economic climate." Terry Morgan, of BAA, added: "I think it's a deal that is a fair reward for our staff, but it's also a deal that the company can afford."

If the strike had gone ahead over the August bank holiday, it would almost certainly have closed all six airports because aviation safety rules do not allow partial closures.

Meanwhile, thousands of British Airways check-in workers and other ground staff will start voting today on whether to accept savings and job losses as part of the airline's plans to cut costs. The GMB union and Unite reached agreement in principle with BA regarding staffing and working arrangements and will recommend that around 3,000 accept the deal, which involves 500 voluntary job losses, with 200 staff having already left, and a one-year pay freeze.

The long-running BA cabin crew dispute remains deadlocked, with further talks expected this week but with little sign of a breakthrough.

BAA's largest customer remains at an impasse with Unite in its dispute over pay and conditions for cabin crew members, who have already staged 22 days of strikes this year with the support of at least 6,300 flight attendants.

Willie Walsh, BA's combative chief executive, has an army of replacement staff on standby and with the union fearing a media backlash it is unlikely to announce further action during the summer.