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BA cabin crew to strike for 7 days

British Airways PLC cabin crew announced plans today to strike for seven days this month, potentially disrupting thousands of travelers ahead of the Easter holidays.

india Updated: Mar 12, 2010 21:56 IST

British Airways PLC cabin crew announced plans on Friday to strike for seven days this month, potentially disrupting thousands of travelers ahead of the Easter holidays.

The walkouts - scheduled for three days from March 20 and another four days from March 27 - are the latest move in a long running and increasingly acrimonious dispute between BA and the union representing its 13,000 cabin crew over a pay freeze and changes to working conditions.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is facing a tough reelection campaign soon, called on both sides to return to the negotiating table, warning that the strikes would "bad news" for the still ailing British economy.

But there was little immediate sign of that, with leaders of the Unite union accusing BA of intimidation as the airline pulled an offer it made before the latest round of talks broke down. Unite had planned to put that offer to cabin crew for a vote before the planned strike action, pledging to call off the walkouts if it was approved. However, the union had added that the offer fell short of its demands, without divulging details, and that it would not recommend it to its members.

BA Chief Executive Willie Walsh said he would be "available for talks 24 hours a day," but stressed that he planned to focus on looking after the airline's customers whose travel plans are again in limbo after a planned Christmas and New Year strike was narrowly averted.

BA has been training around 1,000 workers who volunteered from other departments at the airline to stand in for cabin crew in the event of a walkout. It said Friday that it was also working to obtain seats on flights operated by rival airlines to pass on to its own customers.

It plans to operate all flights from London City airport, including long-haul services to New York. From Gatwick, it plans to operate all long-haul services and about 50 percent of short-haul. From Heathrow, it plans to operate a "substantial part" of both long haul and short-haul schedules.

Unite stuck by a pledge not to hold a strike over the busy Easter period, after the planned Christmas walkout resulted in a public backlash against workers. But Unite assistant general secretary Len McCluskey said further action would take place after April 14 if the dispute is not resolved. BA won a court order stopping the planned Christmas strike on a technicality over irregularities in the union's balloting of workers on the walkout.

Bob Atkinson of travel Web site travelsupermarket.com warned that customers were increasingly angry with both sides in the dispute over a number of cost-cutting measures imposed by the airline to cope with the global economic downturn.

"This strike is getting no sympathy from customers and is eroding loyalty for the BA brand and driving passengers to rivals at a time when the airline is facing record annual losses," said Atkinson. "It's sure to affect the long term stability of all BA jobs should it become a protracted dispute and is distracting from the real challenge of returning the airline to normal service and a profitable operation that customers can choose with confidence." BA has been particularly hard hit because of its heavy running costs and reliance on first- and business-class fares that have seen less demand during the recession. It argues the changes - including a pay freeze in 2010, a switch to part-time work for 3,000 staff and a reduction in cabin crew sizes from 15 to 14 on long-haul flights from Heathrow airport - are critical.