Page last updated at 23:46 GMT, Saturday, 20 March 2010

BA fights to limit the impact of cabin crew strike

Unite picket
The union is opposed to BA's attempts to cut cabin crew staffing levels

British Airways says contingency plans for the first day of a three-day cabin crew strike have gone "extremely well".

It said more than 65% of passengers would reach their destinations, with 1,157 staff working and some cancelled flights reinstated.

But the Unite union, which represents crew members, says only a third of BA's normal flights took off, with 125 out of its 250 planes grounded.

Another four-day strike is planned for 27 March in the pay and conditions row.

Extra flights

BA said it was confident that it could handle 49,000 passengers on each of Saturday and Sunday, compared with about 75,000 on a normal weekend day in March.

Joe Lynam
Joe Lynam, business correspondent

British Airways cannot afford to be too smug at this early stage in an industrial dispute - but it might be able to afford a relieved sigh.

Its main hub here at Heathrow Terminal 5 was moving quite well. There was no evidence of queues nor irate passengers unable to get on planes.

Much of the thanks for that can also be attributed to the pragmatic nature of the travelling public. They were well warned and reacted accordingly. They rebooked, rerouted or were simply refunded.

Striking cabin crews were also out in colourful force only a few metres from a large collection of grounded BA planes.

The union will take solace in the fact that their actions over the next two to three days has already caused BA to warn that flights from Heathrow on Tuesday and perhaps Wednesday will be impacted in some way.

A spokeswoman said: "Cabin crew are continuing to report as normal at Gatwick and the numbers reporting at Heathrow are above the levels we needed to operate our published schedule.

"At Heathrow, around 50% of cabin crew have reported as normal and we are therefore increasing the number of long-haul and short-haul flights in our schedule in the days ahead."

The company is advising customers to check the BA website to find out what extra flights will now be operating.

At the start of the strike it said 65% of passengers would be able to reach their destinations, despite 1,100 BA flights out of the 1,950 scheduled being cancelled.

However, Unite insisted 80% of its 12,000 members had supported the first day of a three-day walkout - the first by BA cabin crew in 13 years.

The union said BA's Terminal 5 at Heathrow was like a "ghost town", adding that the airline contingency plans were failing.

BA described the union's claims as "rubbish", and said it had reinstated some long-haul flights this weekend because more staff had worked, including services to Miami, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, JFK in New York and Cape Town.

Former BA cabin crew manager Jamie Bowden said most of the check-in staff at Terminal 5 were working without any disruptions.

He told BBC News: "The leased aircraft that British Airways have chartered in, they are part of the normal computer system now, and so far things are going pretty smoothly."

'Management bullying'

Unite said a number of planes were stacked up at airports, including 85 parked planes at Heathrow, 20 at Cardiff and 20 in Shannon.

Unite national officer Steve Turner: “Our pickets are strong”

It said none of the buses which normally transport crew to work had crossed its picket lines at airports.

A spokesman said: "The support we are getting shows how strongly people feel about this and is in spite of the bullying by management."

At 1900, GMT BA said that 97% of Gatwick crew had reported to work as had 52.5% of Heathrow crew. Earlier, it said London City airport was operating as normal.

At Gatwick, all long-haul flights and more than half of short-haul flights are expected to operate as normal this weekend, along with more than 60% of long-haul flights and 30% of short-haul flights at Heathrow.

Many flights are operating with the help of aircraft hired in from other carriers.

'Terrible day'

In a video message on the BA website, chief executive Willie Walsh apologised to passengers for a "terrible day" and said he was confident a "good service" would be provided.

BA will fold just as our coal, steel and manufacturing industries in general have done, mainly thanks to the people demanding unrealistic rewards which are not affordable or sustainable

About 200 union members have attended a rally at Bedfont Football Club, near Heathrow, where Unite assistant general secretary Len McCluskey said the "intransigent management" at BA could be "defeated".

BA has been in negotiations with Unite for many months.

Workers are particularly angry that last November BA reduced the number of crew on long-haul flights and is introducing a two-year pay freeze from 2010.

The airline also proposed new contracts with lower pay for fresh recruits.

Unite says it accepts the need for BA to cut costs but that it was not consulted on the changes.

BA suffered a loss before tax of £342m for the nine months to the end of December 2009 and says it needs to cut costs in order to survive.

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