"Only 15 miles from London, the picturesque Esher venue offers outdoor event space as well as flexible indoor facilities with ample parking" – so trills the publicity for Sandown Park racecourse.

As a pale sun dappled through the skeletal branches of the trees in what, in other seasons, counts as one of the leafiest parts of the Home Counties, I was forced to conclude that the Surrey course has no provisions for stabling bicycles – and that I was the only person at the BA cabin crew mass meeting who would notice.

In the mid-80s, union members tended to gather for mass meetings by bike, on public transport or crammed into clapped-out Cortina Mk3s. But surveying the car park shortly before the result of the strike ballot and Yuletide-wrecking industrial action was announced, it became clear the preferred form of travel for the revolutionary ranks of British Airways cabin crew appears to be the Land Rover Discovery or the Renault Scenic.

One of the latter vehicles carried a poster with a picture of BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, with the slogan "Willie's out ... of his mind, of his tree, of his depth, of his job very soon." It also had a French registration plate. Because of the relative benevolence of BA's conditions of service, plenty of cabin crew successfully live away from the airline's base in London, returning only when necessary for a tour of duty.

Never mind another country: some of their counterparts in other airlines accuse BA cabin crew of living on another planet. When easyJet flies from Gatwick to Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt, its cabin crew stay for no more than an hour before coming back; when BA flies the same route, the crew get two or three nights, on full pay and while staying in a five-star hotel, to enjoy the Red Sea coast.

One million passengers with confirmed reservations are now unable to look forward to similar relaxation during the festive season. Meanwhile, the Sandown Park publicity concludes: "Our friendly and competent personnel are what will make your event a truly memorable one." Plenty of people will have cause to remember the sunny day in Surrey when BA cabin crew went nuclear.

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