Thousands of British Airways passengers found themselves on Saturday boarding unfamiliar aircraft from carriers including no-frills Ryanair and Air Finland as British Airways mounts a huge operation to cope with its first strike in 13 years.
The Unite union representing more than 12,000 BA cabin crew on Friday night defied calls from Gordon Brown to halt the strike and was due to press ahead with three days of industrial action from midnight. Last-minute talks in London to try to reach a deal with the airline ended in acrimony on Friday.
On Saturday morning within Terminal 5, service seemed to be running relatively normally, albeit, with staff called, a reduced passenger load. Many of the travellers appeared to be foreign holidaymakers.
The picket lines were not located near the passenger entrances and staff dressed in yellow jackets were walking the terminal in case of any staff being hassled. One BA staff member said there were concerns that union officials were patrolling the airport to take note of who was working.
In a statement on Saturday, BA said operations at Heathrow and Gatwick have “got off to a good start” and London City is operating as normal.
“Cabin crew are reporting as normal at Gatwick and the numbers reporting at Heathrow are above the levels we need to operate our published schedule,” BA said.
The strikes in the run-up to the expected May general election is a serious headache for the prime minister. The RMT union is considering calling the first national rail strike for 16 years and said signal workers had voted for action.
Tony Woodley, Unite’s joint leader, said trying to settle with BA had proved “mission impossible”. It had been an “absolute disgrace” that Willie Walsh, the airline’s chief executive, had tabled an offer that contained a worse pay deal than that which was offered last week, he said.
“I think this is a classic case of Mr Walsh unfortunately being one of the hawks and looking for a war with our members, as opposed to a negotiated settlement,” said Mr Woodley.
Mr Walsh denied trying to break the union or avoid a deal. “I’ve been here for the last three days in direct discussions with Tony Woodley,” he said, adding he must be “the only chief executive of a FTSE 100 company” to have given his mobile phone number to union leaders to try to keep discussions going.
BA believes it will be able to keep 65 per cent of passengers flying thanks to chartered aircraft and 1,000 volunteer cabin crew it has trained since it became evident a strike might go ahead over the airline’s changes to flight attendant working conditions.
Ryanair, normally a feisty opponent, sounded more supportive when asked about the three aircraft it was leasing to the UK carrier, saying: “BA is in a fight for survival and the last thing they need is strike action from a greedy union, which passengers simply won’t tolerate.”
Downing Street said: “The prime minister believes that this strike is in no one’s interest and will cause unacceptable inconvenience to passengers. He urges the strike be called off immediately.”