British Airways (BA) cabin crew began a three-day strike yesterday after last-ditch talks on a dispute over pay and conditions collapsed, leaving thousands of travelers facing chaos.
Thousands of members of Britain’s biggest trade union, Unite, walked out at midnight on Friday, just hours after face-to-face talks broke down between union joint leader Tony Woodley and BA chief executive Willie Walsh.
More than 1,000 flights are likely to be cancelled over the next three days, followed by a potentially more disruptive second walkout for four days from next Saturday ahead of the busy Easter holiday period.
“It’s with great disappointment that I have to tell you all that negotiations have broken down,” Woodley told reporters on Friday evening. “The strike goes ahead at midnight tonight.”
He added of BA: “This company does not want to negotiate, this company wants ultimately to go to war with my members.”
Woodley accused BA of proposing a deal during the last-minute talks that reduced the amount of pay on offer, saying it was “ridiculous to expect anyone to go to their membership with a worse offer.”
A total of 1,100 BA flights out of the approximately 1,950 scheduled to operate during the first strike will be cancelled.
BA has vowed, however, to keep at least 60 percent of passengers flying, using staff who are not striking, as well as leasing up to 22 planes with pilots and crew from up to eight other European airlines.
Walsh, who emerged separately from the talks, said: “It’s deeply regrettable that a proposal that we have tabled to Unite that I believe is fair ... has not been accepted. BA will be flying tomorrow and will continue to fly throughout these periods of industrial action.”
Walsh said he had “no concerns” about threatened action from unions in France and Germany in sympathy with Unite.
Later, in a video on the airline’s Web site, he told passengers he was “deeply sorry,” adding: “This is a terrible day for BA.”
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown believes the strike is “in no-one’s interest,” a spokesman said.
He said it would cause “unacceptable inconvenience” to passengers and he urged BA management and workers to hold fresh talks as soon as possible.
The main opposition Conservatives accused the government of a weak response to the strike action because Unite is a major donor to Brown’s ruling Labour party, and warned of a return to the industrial strife of the 1970s.
Some conservative newspapers took up this theme yesterday, noting that railway signal workers also voted on Friday to strike. Commentators said the action could severely damage Brown ahead of an election expected on May 6.
The long-running BA dispute centers on cost-cutting changes to working conditions by the airline, which the union says will lead to the introduction of a “second tier workforce on poorer pay and conditions.”
BA, which is attempting to merge with Spanish rival Iberia, said last month it expected to notch up a record loss in the current financial year because of weak demand for air travel.
It made better-than-expected pre-tax losses of £50 million (US$79 million) in the last three months of last year.