Simon Calder: Airline faces the music as 'ABBA' chorus grows

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The Independent Online

The Royal Courts of Justice have much in common with Terminal Five at Heathrow: besides soaring cathedral-like lines, they are both places that people pass through in hope or despair. These days, you are also likely to bump into a lot of British Airways managers and cabin crew at either venue.

From the security checkpoint at the High Court, the Master of the Rolls' Court – hidden on the second floor of the East Wing – is as tricky to track down as one of the more distant gates at Heathrow. At least the latter comes with the prospect of escape to some exotic destination; those who made the trek to the courtroom yesterday morning (and were not turned away due to an overbooking of journalists) could look forward only to a 90 minutes' recital of dense legal documents by the judges.

From the perspective of a travel editor (admittedly well out of his depth in a case involving fundamental trade union rights), it seemed that in-court entertainment – like BA's industrial relations – has room for improvement.

A squabble that has its roots in whether or not the senior cabin-crew member on British Airways long-haul flights should push a trolley has escalated to a national dispute over the future of industrial relations. The average passenger, though, long sidelined in this increasingly acrimonious tussle, merely wants to know if his or her flight is going to take off. However the dispute unfolds, the damage to British Airways – and by extension to its workforce – intensifies with each passing day of stalemate.

Passengers who had booked BA tickets many months ago for the school summer holidays, assuming that a settlement would surely be reached by then, are now in the unfortunate position of having to find alternatives in case a fresh strike grounds their flights.

Normally, July and August are peak months for British Airways – the time of year when the airline expects its aircraft to be full of passengers paying high fares.

The longer the uncertainty continues, the stronger the ABBA principle ("Anybody But British Airways") becomes. Prospective travellers are switching in ever-larger numbers to BA's bemused yet delighted rivals, such as Virgin Atlantic and easyJet, rather than taking the risk of being grounded by a clearly dysfunctional airline where the customer-facing staff and management are trading insults.

"Fly the flag"? BA's new slogan could be "See you in court".