Simon Calder: After the inevitable delay, we flew straight into more turbulence

Had the three-hour delay been for a flight rather than a press conference, the assembled media would have been entitled to care and compensation. Instead, technicians tinkered and commentators conjectured to fill the time before the result of the strike ballot of BA cabin crew was announced at Unite HQ.

As with flight delays, plenty of rumours circulated about the reason for the hold-up. One whisper suggested British Airways was seeking yet another injunction because of flaws in the ballot. Another insisted that union in-fighting had flared up again, this time over the timing and extent of stoppages. But a call to the Electoral Reform Society established it was merely the result of that other great British institution prone to strike, Royal Mail, delivering the final tranche of ballot papers late.

Meanwhile the media were treated to a printed briefing, which explained that most British Airways cabin crew at Gatwick earned under £1,250 a month, including allowances, and that "many rely on tax credits to top up their earnings".

While nimble figures tallied the majority in favour of a strike, the load factor in the meeting room increased to more than 100 per cent; by the time the press conference finally got under way, three dozen of us in economy class were fighting over two dozen chairs.

As unions go, Unite is particularly well crewed. Up front, a pair of assistant general secretaries, Len McCluskey and Paul Talbot, enjoyed extra legroom.

Captain McCluskey, who was clearly at the controls, said: "We're saying to British Airways: 'please wake up and smell the coffee.'"

For the unfortunate passengers who bankroll the whole messy operation, coffee may be unforthcoming – or served by a gruff pilot who is, in the words of one of Unite's general secretaries, acting as "scab labour" in between his or her flying duties.

BA has enlisted volunteers from across the airline to act as cabin crew for a shadow airline. These "ScabJet" flights will be augmented by planes chartered in from other airlines. The biggest carrier, by a mile, within Europe, is an Irish airline. It has plenty of spare capacity before the Easter peak. So passengers could theoretically find that they "Buy BA, fly Ryanair".

If so, they may discover that the leading low-cost airline is not so bad after all – and has the added advantage of having the best punctuality, if not the best coffee, in the business.