British Airways, union bicker; customers lose

TRUST: The UK's flag-carrier is facing strikes after two days of failed negotiations with employees over a dispute regarding the manner in which work hours will be tracked


Thu, Jul 24, 2003 - Page 12

British Airways Plc, Europe's largest airline, faces the threat of strikes at BAA Plc's London Heathrow Airport after a second day of talks with unions failed to resolve a dispute with check-in employees.

The three unions representing about 250 check-in workers said the airline had "failed to move an inch" to address concerns about the introduction of a swipe-card system to keep track of work hours and replace a handwritten method.

"We have helped achieve massive savings and the company should be sitting down with us to resolve any differences," Patrick O'Keeffe, national secretary for civil aviation at the Transport & General Workers' Union, said in an e-mailed statement.

More than 100,000 passengers faced travel disruption as more than 500 flights were canceled after the British Airways employees staged an official walkout on Friday and Saturday. The airline estimated it lost "tens of millions" as a result.

"The trade unions have stated that they do not agree with the airline's decision to introduce swipe cards for staff and that is their final position," British Airways said in an e-mailed statement. The carrier will start using the cards from noon, London time, today, it said.

The T&G, GMB and Amicus unions said they would decide on a ballot for industrial action following consultations today with the workers. They said British Airways chief executive Rod Eddington had refused to meet with them after they called for a meeting.

"There will now be a ballot for industrial action," Ed Blissett, senior organizer for the GMB trade union, told Sky News.

"There hasn't been an agreement about the swipe-card system and that's not acceptable."

The threat of further strikes is the latest in a series of setbacks for the London-based carrier, whose fiscal fourth-quarter loss tripled as the Iraq war, SARS epidemic and slowing economies reduced air travel. Its credit rating was cut to junk by Standard & Poor's on July 1.

The walkout last weekend probably cost British Airways as much as ?20 million (US$32 million) in earnings before interest and tax, according to Andrew Light, an analyst at Citigroup's Smith Barney unit who rates the stock "outperform."

EasyJet Plc, which flies out of London Gatwick, Stansted and Luton airports, yesterday said it picked up as many as 6,000 extra customers as a result of the dispute at Heathrow. EasyJet is Europe's largest low-fare airline.

Rival low-cost airline Ryanair Holdings Plc, which has its biggest base at Stansted and also has a base at Luton, said it picked up 7,600 additional passengers.

The airline declined to give details of sales generated from the tickets.