Union reconsiders BA strike as ash threatens stoppages

Passengers face uncertainty; minister to intervene
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The Independent Travel

The union threatening British Airways with strike action over a pay dispute revealed last night that it was "seriously considering" calling off its first strike if a fresh ash cloud from the erupting Icelandic volcano shuts UK airspace.

The Department of Transport yesterday warned passengers that ash could disrupt flights from this morning until Tuesday, when the first strike by BA cabin crew is due to begin. Britain's busiest airports in the South-east, including Heathrow and Gatwick, are most at risk of being shut, based on further volcanic activity in Iceland and prevailing weather conditions, according to the Met Office.

Tony Woodley, the joint general secretary of Unite, told the BBC: "You would have to be stupid to want to ground planes that are going nowhere anyway." Cancelling the first day of strikes could mean a reprieve for BA passengers flying from airports elsewhere in the UK that are not affected by the ash. Nats, the UK's air traffic services provider, will announce any airspace restrictions if they become necessary and advised passengers to check with their airlines.

Either way, passengers' travel plans are at risk. The airline will hold talks with Unite tomorrow at the conciliation service Acas in an attempt to avert 20 days of strikes, while also seeking a court injunction to try to halt the stoppages. BA said it believed Unite failed to comply with trade union legislation that "requires unions to send everyone eligible to vote details of the exact breakdown of the ballot results". The airline is querying an online ballot, which could have been manipulated. "There's no certainty how people voted or that it was one vote per person. They may even have voted multiple times," a BA spokesman said.

The Government will seek to intervene in the dispute on Monday when Philip Hammond, the new Transport Secretary, will meet leaders of Unite and BA executives separately. "Aviation is a challenging market and BA must remain competitive, so this strike will ultimately be self-defeating. I urge both parties to resolve their dispute to avoid disruption to passengers and safeguard the future of British Airways," Mr Hammond said.

Members of Unite are due to walk out during four back-to-back five-day strikes on 18, 24 and 30 May and 5 June, as part of their dispute over wages and staff levels. The trouble has raged for more than a year, and triggered seven days of action in March. Unite's 12,000 members, who represent 89 per cent of BA's 13,500 cabin crew, rejected an offer from BA in an online ballot 10 days ago.

t Eurostar passengers were delayed yesterday following a carbon dioxide alert in the Channel Tunnel. Services were halted after a UK-bound freight train triggered a detector shortly after 7am. Services were delayed for around 90 minutes, according to a Eurotunnel spokesman.

Although the freight train was stopped, no Eurostar trains were stuck in the tunnel during the closure.