Travel plans over Christmas have been thrust into chaos after a 12-day strike by British Airways’ employees was announced.
The walkout will take place between December 22 and January 2. It was called by the cabin crew’s union – Unite – in response to BA’s planned cutbacks of staff on long-haul flights and a wages freeze. Some 92.5 per cent of members voted for the action, which could affect up to a million passengers.
British Airways operates a service that flies directly between London and Grand Cayman with a stop at Nassau, Bahamas that does not require Cayman-bound passengers to change aircraft.
Should the action go ahead, it will severely affect the plans of Caymanians and residents who are expecting seasonal visits from loved ones.
Attorney David Ritch is anticipating the arrival of his son Travis, who is currently studying at Kings College, London.
‘He can get here but has a booking to go back to London for New Year [which may be cancelled]. The alternatives are limited; …. we [can] try and re-route him, which at this late stage is not only going to be difficult in terms of finding a seat, but significantly more expensive.’
Travis Ritch said that the stoppage would affect plans significantly as he and many others are left in the dark as to the situation.
‘I’m still waiting as many are on the list of which flights will still go and which won’t,’ he said by telephone from England. ‘If I need to go through Miami instead, then that has an implication in terms of customs. It is very difficult not to have the information at the moment in order to make an informed choice. We’re just waiting to see if we can come back on a scheduled flight.’
James Clarke, an accountant, is awaiting a visit from his parents who are due to fly on the scheduled 1 January, 2010 British Airways flight.
‘We’re expecting a new baby on 8 January and were expecting the folks to come out and help with preparation.
‘My folks are getting on a bit so they’re not wanting to have too many connections and stop-overs – who does?’
Derek Haines says his London-based underwriter son, Chris, arrives this week and is keeping a sense of humour about his return to the UK, which falls within the planned strike dates.
‘He said that he would just have to be stranded – after all there are worse places to be stuck than Cayman Islands with your family over Christmas. It is a busy time of year for him, although these days with the business he’s in, he can still work to an extent on his laptop.’
Nicole Holmes is also expecting a visit from her parents who are due to fly on the British Airways direct flight from London on Christmas Day.
‘At the moment we’re in limbo with Christmas plans. They’ve looked into alternative flight arrangements and it’s astronomically-priced to re-ticket with another airline. It’s a case of wait-and-see and is in the lap of the gods for everyone.’
Many children who are schooled in the UK are scheduled to travel on the British Airways service because it is a direct flight that does not require stepping off the aircraft between London Heathrow and Grand Cayman. With many school terms re-starting on Monday, 5 January, the industrial action could severely affect the return journey from Cayman.
Simon Barwick of BB&P Advertising says his three children have already arrived back safely for the holidays, but getting back to the UK is more problematic.
‘I think parents are a bit more concerned about it than the kids are because they see it as a nice legitimate way to extend their Christmas holidays. But parents come to rely on the BA direct flights pretty heavily and rerouting is next to impossible.’
Trina Christian of Cayman Islands Tourism Association points out that while the planned strikes cause significant disruption, the UK is not the majority source for Cayman tourism.
‘It’s important to note that it is a small percentage of our visitors who would be affected by this.’
However, Ms Christian agreed the strike was not something that was needed right now.
‘Anything that is going to be harmful to tourism is not what we want to hear,’ she said. ‘It’s a critical time of the year and all of our businesses depend on making money because rates are higher and these couple of months help businesses get through the rest of the year,’ she said.
For David Ritch and many others, the planned stoppage has already affected the Cayman Islands to a wider degree.
‘With tourism being down across the region this is yet another blow, not just to friends and family travelling back and forth, but to our winter season, just as it’s getting started.’
A British Airways statement on their website noted that customers whose travel dates fell between the strike dates or for 48 hours either side could rebook to a different time on another BA flight to the same destination within the next 12 months with no additional charge.
Should flights become cancelled due to the industrial action, there were options of ticket refunds, re-booking on a different flight or re-routing journeys on another BA flight or other carriers, ‘subject to availability and agreement’.
However, BA had not announced any cancellation to services making re-booking difficult. Options are limited over one of the busiest seasons of the year, with competition for any available seats so close to this very busy time of year pushing up prices accordingly.
Rivals Virgin Atlantic announced that they would be utilising larger aircraft on some of its competing US routes, but that seats were limited.
Negotiations between British Airways and Unite are ongoing with BA Chief Executive Officer Willie Walsh meeting union leaders in a bid to resolve the situation.
The airline has also applied for an emergency court injunction to prevent a walk-out on the basis original strike ballot invalid due to the poll of 12,500 members having included ex-employees of BA. The case was heard by. Justice Cox at the Royal Courts of Justice, London on Wednesday with a decision due today.