British Airways On Strike

The Unite trade union, which represents 12 000 BA cabin crew, is staging its second walkout in a week and says there are likely to be more ahead unless BA makes them an acceptable offer.

Just weeks before an election expected on May 6, opposition Conservative leader David Cameron used the strike to attack Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose Labour party receives much of its funding from Unite.

Cameron told the BBC on Sunday that Brown had displayed “weakness” in his response to the BA dispute and threatened action by railway workers, saying this was “partly because he’s hocked to the unions”.

Many strikes

“The unions have scented weakness in the government and that’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing quite so many strikes,” he added.

Brown hit back in a separate BBC interview, saying there had been “far greater industrial peace” in the past 13 years of the Labour government than there had been in the previous 18 years of Conservative rule.

“We have been very tough about this British Airways strike, we’ve said its not in the public interest, it’s not in British Airways’ interest and we’ve said we don’t think it’s in the workers’ interest,” he said.

“But we also want to make it possible for arbitration and negotiation to take place,” the prime minister added.

Talks between BA and Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, broke down on the eve of the first strikes on March 20 and there is no date for them to resume.

Dispute continues

“Until such time as a sensible proposal comes on the table, this dispute will continue,” Unite’s Steve Turner told the BBC on Saturday.

“There are no talks that are scheduled right now. We’re willing and available to discuss matters with the company at any point in order to reach a sensible, negotiated, acceptable agreement on behalf of our members.”

The strikes centre on what the union says is BA chief executive Willie Walsh’s “slash and burn strategy” to cut costs which it claims would lead to a two-tier workforce and damage standards of customer service.

But Walsh has warned the airline could fold in a decade unless the changes he wants are carried out.

“We are trying to transform the way we operate because the industry is changing and the economic conditions have changed so radically that we’ve got to change,” he told the Daily Telegraph Saturday.

‘BA won’t exist’

“We’re doing this to make sure BA still exists in 10 years. If we don’t do this, BA won’t exist in 10 years.”

BA said it had achieved its target on Saturday to fly more than 75% of customers booked to travel, and said services had got off to a similarly good start Sunday morning.

London’s Gatwick and City airports had operated as normal on Saturday and enough staff turned up to the airline’s main hub at London Heathrow to crew the revised timetable, it said.

Walsh visited Heathrow’s Terminal 5 to talk to passengers and said he found customers “very positive”.

“At the same time, I am deeply sorry for those customers who have had their holidays and their plans disrupted,” he said in a video message.

Unite claims six Heathrow flights were loaded with passengers then unloaded on Saturday because of lack of crew and that many long-haul services were leaving 30% below capacity. This is denied by the airline.

Outside Heathrow, striking cabin crew set up picket lines and were joined by staff from Iberia, the Spanish airline which is in talks to merge with BA.

BA said last month it expected to notch up a record loss in the current financial year due to weak demand for air travel.  SAPA