Simon Calder: A flight from reality as it gets difficult to discern fact from propaganda

The revenue from the passengers was negligible; their value was as a weapon

The winners in the bitter British Airways cabin crew dispute were celebrating last night: executives from Virgin Atlantic, easyJet, Flybe and BMI watched in gleeful amazement as BA consolidated its reputation for discord and unreliability.

The second day of the strike saw the scrap between BA's management and the union, Unite, become even more personal and poisonous. It was characterised by a war of words waged on a very strange battlefield. The union took the high ground of the 24-hour news broadcasters, while British Airways remained in the management trench, confining its attacks to an occasional release on the video-hosting site, Youtube.

The first casualty of war is arithmetic, and looking at the weekend's pronouncements you might imagine the two sides were describing entirely different events. On Saturday, for example, Unite announced that only one third of BA's normal flights had departed, and the average payload on each was just 14 passengers. That pointed to a total of 3,000 passengers being carried, compared with the 49,000 BA said it handled.

BA came up with "breaking news" about the airline reinstating a squadron of long-haul flights. The passenger-in-the-terminal could have been impressed by a newsflash that asserted the airline was now able to operate flights to Cape Town, Hong Kong and Miami – little knowing the planes were all going to be taking off anyway, on "positioning" flights to pick up inbound crews and passengers. When BA found it had more cabin crew than expected, they were assigned to these flights, which were then opened to the public. The revenue from the handful of passengers was negligible; the main value to the airline was a weapon in the game of claim and counter-claim.

Unite won the propaganda war. "By 2pm, only one flight to JFK airport had departed – normally there are five," reported the union on Saturday. Techincally correct but semantically sly. The five departures referred to the entire day. In fact, BA got three out of the five planes on its premier route off the ground. Unite also persuaded Sky News that cabin crews were getting off arriving aircraft and immediately joining the strike. While those crew may have gone straight to the picket line, they could not strike because they were off duty.

The soundbite of the day belonged to Unite's Tony Woodley. He used an interview on Sky News to deplore BA's use of its arch-rival Ryanair on flights from Gatwick. "God help this company," said Mr Woodley, though you could sense he felt the Almighty had already sided with him.

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