Simon Calder: This could be a fight to the death

Shortly before noon yesterday, the "ABBA Principle" kicked in. Until the present bitter dispute between BA management and cabin crew is resolved, "Anybody But British Airways" will be the refrain of passengers who cannot afford to risk disruption.

Even before a single ballot has been cast, travelling executives with urgent business in Mumbai or Manhattan, and expatriates seeking Christmas flights to their families, will book with BA's rivals.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways, heard the news of Unite's call for a strike ballot in Las Vegas, where he is promoting BA's latest long-haul gamble: a non-stop flight from Heathrow, in competition with Virgin's Jumbo from Gatwick. Mr Walsh is well aware that the cabin crew costs for BA are about twice those for Sir Richard Branson's airline on the routes where they compete. It is said that a BA cabin crew member rostered to fly Heathrow-Tokyo and back will earn, in allowances alone, more from that trip than the average Ryanair flight attendant earns in a month.

The key elements of Mr Walsh's business plan are to reduce by one the number of cabin crew on flights to and from Heathrow, and – when at last BA is in a position to recruit once more – employ new cabin crew on very different and much cheaper contracts. Cabin crew, who are not naturally militant, are dismayed: they say they have come up with proposals for reducing costs which the airline has ignored. The airline posted record profits two years ago, with the same working practices that BA says must now end if it is to win what Mr Walsh has called a "Fight for survival".

Discussions have dragged on for months, which is why management wrote to tell cabin crew of the unilateral changes. BA says the moves are not contractual; Unite insists they are.

So what's the name of the game? The British Airways board, which backs Willie Walsh to the hilt, is prepared to put up with a strike in, say, early December, in order to force through its changes; while any strike is financially uncomfortable for an airline, that is when the revenue lost will be at a minimum. Cabin crew, meanwhile, have grown accustomed to flexing their industrial muscle to great effect in the past, which is why they are the best-rewarded in Britain.

Cabin crew will express their anger next Monday at another gambler's location: Sandown Park racecourse in Surrey. After that, a strike ballot will be held and overwhelmingly approved – at which point rival airline bosses will sit back, relax and see which side meets its Waterloo.

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