Leading article: Industrial action will be a disaster for British Airways

A strike would inflict grave damage on the airline's reputation

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The threatened strike by British Airways cabin crew has, unsurprisingly, taken on a political dimension. It does not take a political genius to work out that strikes in a pre-election period are potentially toxic for a serving government. The Conservative chairman, Eric Pickles, has sought to embarrass Labour by pointing out that it has received £11m from the Unite union, which represents BA crew, since 2007.

Yet, despite the financial links, it is a something of a stretch for the Tories to suggest that Labour is in the pockets of the unions. For Labour, the votes of disgruntled holidaymakers far outweigh the need to maintain good relations with the unions, which is why Gordon Brown gave an interview yesterday in which he said this weekend's planned industrial action would be "unjustified and deplorable".

The Prime Minister has been condemned in some quarters for appearing to side with BA's management. But that does not make his verdict wrong, for this seems to be a case of union blindness that might have been lifted directly from the 1970s.

It is hard to overstate the weakness of BA's financial situation. The airline lost £400m in the last full financial year and £342m in the nine months to December 2009. Business passengers, which traditionally generate the bulk of the airline's profits, have fallen dramatically since the recession broke and are showing no signs of returning. BA's staffing overheads are too high. And because the airline is in competition with some ruthless cost-cutting rivals, action to bring these down cannot be delayed.

This should be bearable. BA's cabin crew are well remunerated in comparison with the employees of other airlines. And the extent of the airline's non-staff economies so far has been to stop serving food on some short-haul flights. There is scope here for efficiency savings.

The union should not expect much public sympathy if they withhold their labour this weekend. The two-year pay freeze that BA intends to impose is no different from what tens of thousands of people across the British economy are being forced to endure as the price for keeping their jobs. And workers everywhere are being asked to cope with cuts in total staff numbers.

This action could backfire on the union. Since the union voted to strike last December, BA's management has been developing contingency plans. Some 1,000 individuals from elsewhere in the company have been trained to work as cabin crew to cover striking workers. And BA says it hopes to run a 60 per cent service this weekend, even if the industrial action goes ahead.

Yet this is not to argue that the strike cannot inflict grave damage. BA has no God-given right to exist. Air passengers have greater choice than ever before. The company's lifeblood is not its landing slots or its size, but its reputation. And what the union seems likely to undermine is not the company's management, but BA's reputation for reliability. Serious harm has already been inflicted by the strike that was threatened last Christmas but called off at the last minute on a legal technicality.

Whatever his true feelings about where blame for this breakdown in relations lies, Mr Brown should press behind the scenes for a resolution. Any form of settlement is better than industrial action. But the fact remains that, of the two sides, it is the union which urgently needs to come back down to earth.

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