Leading article: An old-fashioned industrial dispute with a 21st-century twist

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But this dispute also had a curiously retro, even vintage, feel to it. There was the timing: two weeks before the summer bank holiday and one of the busiest weekends of the year. There were the images: the chaotic multitudes of irate would-be passengers thronging the formation and the dejected individuals, in cheerful holiday gear, slumped on their luggage. There was the rhetoric: the quasi-apologies from the workers who are not working, insisting that they had no choice, and the hand-wringing from the company. And there are the peace talks - called at "the arbitration and reconciliation service, Acas". When was the last time that this once so familiar organisation figured so high in the headlines?

Above all, though, this was a dispute that has erupted and escalated in the old-fashioned way, as though none of the Thatcher legislation on industrial relations had ever been enacted. Employees at Gate Gourmet, the company supplying food for BA flights, stopped work without holding the requisite ballot. They were summarily dismissed by the US-owned company. BA baggage handlers came out in sympathy, in - how quaint the words now sound - secondary action, which is also illegal.

Perversely, perhaps, responsibility for feeding, accommodating and rebooking unhappy travellers has fallen on British Airways at one of its busiest times of year. And, no less unfairly, it is BA that has drawn most of the passengers' flak, even though the dispute was even less of its making than the walkout that followed last summer's ill-timed effort to redraw staff rotas.

Uncomfortably for business and legislators, this only goes to illustrate the damage that can still be done by a "well-timed" withdrawal of labour by employees irresponsible enough, or desperate enough, to flout the law. And it is hard not to sympathise with British Airways. Just as the company was starting to recover its reputation for quality and reliability, industrial trouble threatens the bottom line and has forced it on to the defensive.

The disruption must be doubly frustrating for BA's chief executive, Sir Rod Eddington. Only five weeks away from handing the reins to his successor, he was entitled to hope that he could leave a flourishing concern. It remains to be seen whether BA will be able to recoup its material losses through the courts, but the harm to its reputation as a commercial company and, as the national flag-carrier, also to Britain will be much harder to remedy.

This does not mean, however, that British Airways does not have an obligation to examine the genesis of the Gate Gourmet dispute, once it is over, and review its contract. Competition with low-cost carriers and charters has pressed all airlines to pare costs, and BA is as entitled as the next company to negotiate the best deal it can with its suppliers. It can be argued that pay and conditions at Gate Gourmet are clearly a matter only for that company's management and its workers. But if those conditions do not meet legal requirements or if corners are being cut in ways that disproportionately penalise the workforce, then more industrial unrest will be in prospect. It is in BA's own interests to do all it can to minimise that risk.