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British Airways has been forced to fly empty jumbo jets to cities around the world as it grapples with the first days of a cabin crew strike that was showing no sign of easing on Sunday night.
As the Unite union organising the stoppage urged BA board members to “take matters in hand” and help re-start talks, the airline re-instated flights to more than 20 destinations in Europe, the US, Asia and elsewhere after it said extra crew were working despite the three-day strike that began on Saturday.
However, Unite said at least 37 of the flights due to fly on Sunday had no passengers and were only being operated to get aircraft to their intended destinations abroad so people could be brought back to London on scheduled flights.
“They’re empty, there are no passengers,” said Unite civil aviation national officer, Steve Turner, speaking amid the carnival-like atmosphere at the Bedfont football club near Heathrow, where striking crew gathered to be taken to surrounding picket lines.
Many wore masks depicting BA chief Willie Walsh, who has become a contentious figure in the long-running dispute, and yelled “Willie, Willie, Willie. Out, out, out” as they piled into buses for the picket lines.
A BA spokesman said it was true some flights would not have passengers aboard, including some 747 jumbo jets, but he could not say how many and did “not recognise” the union’s figures.
“They are also operating as cargo flights, which brings us a lot money,” the spokesman said. “And they will come back with hundreds of passengers on board.”
As the airline and union traded claims about the impact of the strike, Tony Woodley, Unite’s joint general secretary, said he was trying to contact Martin Broughton, BA chairman, to help end the dispute before a second four-day stoppage next Saturday.
Mr Broughton told the Financial Times last night he had no intention of intervening “because Willie Walsh is doing a great job” and the entire board supported him.
“The ball is in Tony Woodley’s court,” Mr Broughton said.
BA, however, said its contingency plans were “continuing to work well” around the world, and 52 per cent of staff due to work had turned up at Heathrow, where 11,500 work from, and 97 per cent at Gatwick.
The airline would not give absolute numbers for the number of staff arriving. Unite said of the 2,220 crew rostered to work, only 300 were believed to have turned up. BA is using 1,000 specially trained volunteer staff and chartered aircraft and crew to fill the gaps.
The airline said it had seen no evidence of industrial action at any international airport, despite promises of support for Unite from unions in Europe and the US.