British Airways Considers Strike Options

British Airways’ 14,000 cabin crew said they would ballot staff on strike action, the Times is reporting.

Nine months of negotiations over changes to crew working practices, a pay freeze and redundancies formally broke down yesterday as Unite, the union, called for industrial action.

The ballot will not take place for at least four weeks and if cabin crew vote to take action, the first strikes are likely to be in early December. A series of rolling strikes could ground planes and cripple the airline in the run-up to the busy Christmas travel period.

However, Willie Walsh, BA’s chief executive, vowed yesterday to press ahead with his cost-cutting plans for the loss-making airline. “I think this just reinforces my view that the unions have failed to grasp the critical need for BA to make significant changes for the future of the business,” he told The Times. “We have got a business to run and we have got significant improvements to make in our cost base and all parts of the business have got to contribute to that.”

BA has been hit hard by the recession with passenger numbers, particularly in business and first class, down dramatically. The airline lost £401 million last year and BA's management wants to reduce its cabin crew budget by about £140 million a year. It has proposed a series of measures to do so, including freezing pay and reducing the allowances given for overseas travel. More than 1,000 cabin crew will be offered voluntary redundancy and a further 3,000 will move to part-time work. Mr Walsh said yesterday that he could not rule out the possibility of further compulsory redundancies. BA also wants to change the way cabin crew work by reducing the number of staff on certain routes and forcing senior crew to compensate by joining the food service teams.

Two weeks ago, BA raised the stakes by saying it would impose these working practice changes from November 16.

A last-ditch meeting between Walsh and Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite, failed to break the deadlock last week.

"BA management's determination to impose unacceptable contractual changes on cabin crew leaves us no alternative," Simpson said. "Negotiation, not imposition, is the only proper way to conduct industrial relations." BA's management is understood to be working on contingency plans, but if cabin crew strike the airline will almost certainly be forced to cancel flights during December.

Walsh, speaking in Las Vegas after BA’s inaugural flight there, refused to comment on possible contingency plans. “The changes that we are making from mid-November will go ahead regardless, and I have made that very clear to them," he said. "We have got fantastic cabin crew but we can’t avoid the realities of the cost structures that we have within the business and they simply are not sustainable. This is a business that is losing money. I don’t take any comfort out of the fact that we have lost money last year and are losing money this year although we are making progress it still will be two consecutive years when BA has made a loss.”