BA cabin crew announce 20 days of strikes

Union plans four five-day walkouts this month and next unless airline begins 'meaningful negotiations' over pay and conditions.

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LONDON // Cabin crew at British Airways announced plans today to strike for a total of 20 days this month and next, threatening yet more chaos for tens of thousands of travellers just weeks after an Icelandic volcanic ash cloud shut down European air space. BA warned that the unprecedented scale of the walkouts over a 23-day period would cause "extensive disruption for potentially hundreds of thousands of customers over a busy period".

The strike action, due to begin early next week, will also add to mounting costs for the struggling British flagship carrier in the wake of the volcano disruption and walkouts by BA staff last month. Unite, which represents around 90 per cent of BA's 12,000 cabin crew, said it was forced to ramp up its actions in a long-running and increasingly bitter dispute over pay and conditions after BA turned down an approach by the union over the weekend.

The strike dates are May 18 to 22, May 24 to 28, May 30 to June 3 and June 5 to June 9, leaving just two days between each five-day walkout. Unite said it approached BA after its members had turned down the latest offer from the airline on Friday, after advice from angry union leaders when BA failed to restore travel perks taken away from staff who joined in strike action in March. Union leaders are also unhappy that BA is taking disciplinary action against more than 50 union members and has fired an official who represented cabin crew.

Unite's joint general secretaries Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley said in a statement that "cabin crew are left with no choice but to take further strike action. There can be no industrial peace without meaningful negotiations and while management victimises trade unionists and uses disciplinary procedures in a witch-hunt". The pair said that the required seven days' notice period gave BA time to "reopen meaningful negotiations".

BA, which called its offer "very fair", said it had already begun speaking to a number of carriers about leasing in extra aircraft to support its shorthaul schedule and also obtaining thousands of seats from other airlines. In a positive note for some travellers, BA said it planned to operate all flights to and from Gatwick as normal. At Heathrow, it plans to operate "a substantial part" of its longhaul schedule and "a number" of daily flights to every destination across its shorthaul network.

The airline said it would give more details four to five days before the strike is due to begin. The airline said in statement that the strike call "has no semblance of justification. We are confident that many crew will again ignore Unite's pointless strike call and support the efforts of the rest of the airline to keep our customers flying." BA has consistently maintained that the series of disputed changes to pay and conditions, including reducing the number of crew on long haul flights and a pay freeze, are necessary to cut costs after two record years of losses at the airline as the global financial crisis hit passenger demand.

The airline estimated that the two strikes by cabin crew in March over seven days cost it around £45 million pounds (Dh248m) in cancelled flights and contingency provisions, including hiring other aircraft complete with crew. The airline lost a further £180m last month when the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud grounded flights. *AP