Simon Calder: No one stands to gain from an even more protracted dispute

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The Independent Online

Every Westminster politician must envy the mandate for industrial action that the BA cabin-crew union, Unite, enjoys in its long-running dispute over rosters and working practices.

In the past five months, union members have twice overwhelmingly backed strikes. And, in a "consultative ballot" that ended at midnight on Thursday, a resounding majority of crew rejected the airline's latest proposals.

The union says it polled online its entire cabin-crew membership, numbering around 11,000. Fewer than 1,500 voted in favour of the BA offer, compared with more than 6,300 who rejected it. Were Unite to call a strike, these figures suggest around half of BA's 13,000 cabin crew would walk out. In a protracted stoppage – which looks increasingly likely – the airline's operations could be devastated.

BA is likely to lose at least £250m in the current quarter. In previous disputes the airline has opted for quick capitulation before the arithmetic becomes too awful. But Willie Walsh, BA's combative chief executive, believes he now holds the upper hand.

During the second tranche of the Unite stoppages in March, a higher proportion of cabin-crew reported for duty at Gatwick than on normal days – exactly the opposite of what is supposed to happen. Even at Heathrow, the union's heartland, BA got more than half its flights away. And with every day that this dispute drags on, the airline is better placed to deploy a growing number of volunteer cabin crew.

"An early resumption of industrial action is not only possible but likely," says Tony Woodley, the union's joint general secretary. Travellers, like banks, dislike uncertainty. In aviation, the mere threat of a strike damages prospective earnings. The next few weeks will determine whether British Airways or the union members will be footing the future bill.

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