By Martin Shankleman,
Employment correspondent, BBC News
BA has said it is in a battle for survival in the global downturn
To say these are turbulent times at British Airways would be an understatement.
And quite apart from its self-confessed "fight for survival" because of rising costs and a fall in demand, staffing issues are high on the agenda.
At the centre of a dispute at the airline is the union fear that BA wants to tear up the contracts of cabin crew, by slashing status and pay, and bring in new recruits on rock-bottom salaries.
Customer service, which crew feel is central to the reputation of the airline, will be irreparably damaged as staff levels are cut and standards collapse, they say.
Union sources insist that BA has painted a future where cabin crew - traditionally well-rewarded in industry terms with clear promotional opportunities - are replaced by new recruits who are poorly paid, can only afford to live in rented accommodation near an airport, and are expected to quit after a maximum of five years.
They also claim that BA plans to abandon its commitment to high-quality service, which had earned it the slogan "the world's favourite airline".
Chief executive Willie Walsh is working for a month without pay
Management are prepared to slash service levels, according to the union.
They say BA is citing the defunct music chain Our Price Records, of all things, as a model to copy - whereby customers entering the record store were greeted by staff who knew little about the products on sale and would refer all questions to a single manager who understood the business.
Leaked company documents marked "strictly confidential", proposed radical new contracts for fresh recruits, and newly-promoted staff. They included a single on-board management grade, no seniority, promotion purely on merit, and pay set at market rate plus 10%.
The plans were presented in a document to company workers and unanimously rejected at a mass meeting last week.
However, staff fear the airline could force them to accept the new terms through imposition.
BA's 14,000 cabin crew are well-paid in industry terms, according to a recent survey for the Civil Aviation Authority, which suggested they earn twice as much as rivals on Virgin Atlantic.
The average pay for a BA crew member is put at £29,900 a year, including bonuses and allowances, compared with just £14,400 at Virgin Atlantic.
Insiders claim some BA cabin crew earn much more than the average, with a senior crew director on a long haul flight paid about £60,000 a year.
A letter from the Unite union, to be handed to shareholders at the airline's annual meeting, warns: "We are not a low-cost airline and cannot compete in the market. We do not employ cheap labour on short-term contracts with little future for the business.
"We are a premier airline, a standard-setter. Instead of being an employer proud of how it treats its employees, it will become one with the bare legal minimum of protections in place."
BA has warned that it is in a battle for survival, and it must restructure and permanently reduce its cost base.
However the company has refused to comment on the status of negotiations with staff, with talks pending with the conciliation service ACAS.