BA strike to cost US $200 M

British
Airways told Britain’s
High Court on Monday that a 20-day cabin crew strike due to start on Tuesday
will cost the airline £138m ($199.3 million), as it launches a last-ditch legal
attempt to avert the walkout.

But with a
volcanic ash cloud threatening to close much of British airspace in the next
two days, the Unite union representing 12,000 cabin crew said it was
“seriously considering” calling off the first of four back-to-back
five-day strikes.

Manchester,
Liverpool, Doncaster, Carlisle, Humberside and East Midlands airports were shut
between 1pm on Sunday and 1am on Monday, as were all airports in Northern Ireland and some in Scotland. Dublin
airport was shut between 7pm on Sunday and at least 9am on Monday, but London hubs, including
Heathrow and Gatwick, remained open.

Winds are
expected to blow south, and the risk remains that south-east airports,
including Heathrow and Gatwick, will be closed on Tuesday, when the first
strike is due to start.

But Tony
Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, said the union was watching the
situation closely and would “seriously consider” calling off its
first strike if the ash cloud cancelled British Airways flights. “You
would have to be stupid to want to ground planes that are going nowhere
anyway,” he said.

BA, which
took legal action that halted a planned 12-day strike over Christmas, is hoping
to repeat its success in the High Court amid a day of frantic meetings aimed at
resolving the bitter dispute over wage and staff levels.

Acas, the
conciliation service, confirmed airline executives would get round the table to
negotiate with Unite leaders on Monday, while Philip Hammond, transport
secretary, will hold talks with both sides. Mr Hammond, whose Runnymede
and Weybridge constituency is close to Heathrow, said the strike would
“ultimately be self-defeating”.

Failing a
breakthrough in the 11th-hour talks aimed at resolving the dispute or success
in the legal attempt by BA to block the strike, the union would proceed with
plans for further five-day strikes from May 24, May 30 and June 5, with a
24-hour gap between each.

Mr
Woodley said on Sunday a deal had been agreed in principle that would resolve
the original dispute over pay, jobs and working practices, including staffing
levels on flights. But the battle has been prolonged because BA has refused to
restore fully travel perks to staff that went on strike in March. There is also
conflict over the suspension and sacking of 50 cabin crew.

The
industrial action threatens to blow a hole in the loss-making airline’s
finances. In a statement to the court on Monday, BA warns that the walkouts
will cost the airline millions. “Loss and damage arising from the proposed
strike action has been conservatively estimated at £138m, even with the full
implementation of contingency measures whereby BA hopes to operate all its
services out of Gatwick and between 60 and 70 per cent of long-haul flights and
50 per cent of short-haul flights out of Heathrow,” it said.

BA’s woes
will continue on Friday when it posts its annual results. City analysts are
expecting the company to announce record losses of £600m for the year to March
– following on from £401m in pre-tax losses for the previous year. The latest
blow will include an estimated £45m hit from the seven days of strikes by cabin
crew in March.

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