Cabin crew at British Airways (BAIRY) are to vote on a fresh ballot for industrial action next week in a move that could leave passengers facing strike action over Easter.
The airline narrowly avoided disruption over the Christmas holidays after legal action prevented planned strikes by flight attendants, but trade union bosses have now called another ballot that could see walkouts during the first week of April.
BA said it was "saddened but not surprised" about the new ballot, but pledged not to let the union "ruin this airline." The chief executive, Willie Walsh, has emailed every BA staff member, calling for people to train as "volunteer cabin crew" to help "keep our customers flying as much as possible if this strike goes ahead."
Unite, Britain's largest union, said 13,000 BA cabin crew staff would vote on action next week after talks with management broke down. It explained that the two sides had failed to agree on "the crucial issues of imposed changes to the workload and working conditions." Should cabin crew once again back a strike, they could stage walkouts during March and potentially over the Easter weekend, which falls at the start of April.
Unite organised a 12-day strike over Christmas and the new year but it move was ruled unlawful by the High Court. Although the union secured 92 per cent backing for the strike, the court upheld BA's claims that Unite had counted votes from members who had subsequently left the company.
The assistant general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, said yesterday that because the two sides had failed to reach an agreement "we therefore have to honour our commitment to give our members the voice they were denied by the courts before Christmas, and hold a fresh ballot for industrial action."
He added: "I have reiterated that we want talks to continue and that the union is prepared to meet any place, any time, to try to reach an agreement which addresses the real concerns of BA's skilled, loyal and professional employees while giving the company the savings it needs to stay airborne.
"We have told management all along that this dispute and the damage it does to BA's prospects can only finally be resolved through negotiation. That remains our position, and I hope the company will make the best use of the time available before the ballot closes," Mr McCluskey said.
The loss of business over one of the busiest weekends of the year is the last thing BA needs.
The group admitted it faced a £1bn slump in revenues over the full financial year, after posting pre-tax losses of £292m in the six months to September.
In November, Mr Walsh said: "We see very clearly that things are not getting any worse but there is no evidence of things getting any better either."
As the airline has struggled to cope with the downturn, it has cut costs by 8.7 per cent and announced 4,900 jobs will go by the end of the financial year.
The union sent letters to cabin crew earlier this month and the new ballot will take place on Monday. BA said the move "calls into question its good faith in the negotiations we took part in throughout last week in an effort to reach a settlement without disruption." The airline acknowledged that its staff had made "significant contributions toward the company's vital programme of permanent cost reduction" but criticised Unite, which it said "has as yet offered no more than empty gestures."
Unite's proposals would increase costs by reversing the changes to on-board crew numbers made in November, BA claimed, adding: "In an economic climate in which we are facing record losses, this approach is completely unrealistic."
The airline believes there is no justification for a strike but said it would put customers' interests first if one went ahead. "We will provide assistance for crew who wish to work normally and we will explore all options to enable us to operate the best flying programme possible under the circumstances," BA added.