updated 2/21/2008 11:29:07 AM ET 2008-02-21T16:29:07

British Airways and its pilots union agreed Thursday to enter mediation over pay and benefits for the airline’s new subsidiary, OpenSkies.

The agreement came just hours after the British Airline Pilots Association announced that its members had voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike.

“We have no quarrel with the traveling public and have always maintained that these issues could be resolved through negotiation rather than confrontation,” said Jim McAuslan, the union’s general secretary.

Airline Chief Executive Willie Walsh said he was confident of reaching an agreement.

An independent mediator will be called in to discuss the issues with both sides and encourage an agreement, but the outcome will not be legally binding.

The union said 86 percent of those who voted were in favor of striking. The pilots oppose British Airways’ plan for OpenSkies because they believe staff would be offered lower pay and benefits.

British Airways said OpenSkies posed no threat to the pay and working conditions of pilots.

“We have offered to make these guarantees part of our industrial agreements with pilots,” the airline said in a statement.

The union, which represents about 3,000 BA pilots, said a strike against British Airways would be the first since 1980. It has set no deadline for taking action.

British Airways has said OpenSkies will begin service to New York from either Brussels or Paris using a single Boeing 757 in June. A second aircraft will start flying to the other European city later this year.

Most of the 82 seats on the aircraft would be dedicated to first-class and business-class travelers, with only 30 in the economy section.

The new airline takes its name from the Open Skies agreement between the U.S. and the European Union, which allows airlines to fly from anywhere in the Europe Union to the United States and vice versa.

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