Simon Calder: Accusations flew – some of them in my direction

As a reminder of dismal British travelling experiences from the 1980s, yesterday lunchtime proved perfect. While passengers at Waterloo, Clapham Junction and all stations to Woking waited glumly on the platform for a train that had vanished without trace, one railway announcement did get through: the news that signallers had joined maintenance staff in voting for a strike in a dispute over changes to working practices.

Somewhere down the empty track near Esher in Surrey, members of British Airways cabin crew were meeting at Sandown Park racecourse to finalise plans for a strike in a dispute over changes to working practices.

Common to these two groups of employees is the industrial muscle that each enjoys: a strike by a relatively small number of staff can disrupt the plans of a disproportionate number of travellers. But in other respects they are as different as trains and planes.

Network Rail has a monopoly on the nation's tracks and stations, which confers the RMT union with extra strength. In contrast, BA cabin crew find themselves fighting to preserve hard-won terms in the middle of the worst crisis in aviation history, while their employer faces the toughest competition on the planet. By striking for even a day they risk losing all their travel concessions. All of which helps to explain the anxiety and anger among the Unite members as they left the final rally before today's strike.

Given the racecourse setting, it was appropriate that one male cabin-crew member had a steward's enquiry for me. Had I, he wondered, invited my employer to cut my pay in the same way that his union had done? Another yelled "Get your facts right!" and walked off.

But a group of more conciliatory cabin crew gathered to express their exasperation at how the media has portrayed them during the dispute. One long-serving stewardess described a "guilty-until-proven innocent" principle that, she said, applies to anyone calling in sick this week. They talked of their commitment to excellent service; and their aversion to a chief executive who, in the words of one steward, "was brought in to break our union".

While we talked, BA was making arrangements at Heathrow to break the strike. Plane-spotters have never known a day like it. The staple diet at Europe's busiest airport is a steady stream of Airbus and Boeing jets belonging to all the usual airlines, from Air France to Virgin Atlantic. But as part of British Airways' preparations for the strike that begins this morning, a sequence of strange tails could be seen assembling at the gleaming £4.3bn building that had previously been the sole preserve of BA.

Titan popped in from Luton and Transavia hopped over from Amsterdam. For the next three days their aircraft and crew will stand in for "real" BA short-haul flights. Indeed, the first departure from Terminal 5 this morning is scheduled to be Jet2 jetting off for Prague.

At Gatwick, travellers will experience a doubly surreal flight to Manchester, Edinburgh or Glasgow: they will be the first people to "book BA, fly Ryanair", and the first passengers in a generation to enjoy complimentary food and drink on one of the Irish airline's flights.

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