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British Airways crew to strike over Christmas

British Airways cabin crew will strike over Christmas, their union said Monday, throwing the plans of thousands of holiday travelers into uncertainty at one of the busiest times of the year.
/ Source: The Associated Press

British Airways cabin crew will strike over Christmas, their union said Monday, throwing the plans of thousands of holiday travelers into uncertainty at one of the busiest times of the year.

Strikes are to begin Dec. 22 and run for a dozen days until Jan. 2, said Len McCluskey, the assistant general secretary for Britain's Unite union. McCluskey said 92.5 percent of workers voted in favor of the action.

"You don't often get ballot results like this unless there is a deep-rooted sense of anxiety, concern and anger," McCluskey said at a news conference.

The struggling carrier has announced sweeping changes as part of its bid to cut costs, including axing 1,700 jobs, freezing pay for current staff and offering lower wages for new employees. The airline has suffered along with the rest of the industry due to lower demand for travel during the global recession.

Chief Executive Officer Willie Walsh called the action "completely unjustified" and said that union misled cabin crew over the necessity and fairness of the airline's new pay and work proposals.

"It's no secret that British Airways is in financial difficulty. Like other global airlines, we have been hit extremely hard by the slump in business travel brought on by the world recession," Walsh said. "Reducing costs is absolutely essential even to begin heading back toward profitability and long-term survival."

Walsh said the company is "working hard on contingency plans, and will announce them as soon as they are finalized."

The airline, which is struggling as the global downturn eats away at demand for air travel, has defended the cost-savings measures as necessary to move back to profitability. It posted a net loss of 208 million pounds ($346 million) for the six months ending in September, its first-ever loss in the period, as revenue fell by 13.7 percent.

BA also revealed on Monday that its pension deficit has blown out further to 3.7 billion pounds, from 2.1 billion pounds in 2006, and said it would consult with employees about a recovery plan.

The union has argued that the changes, introduced in mid-November, has stopped members from doing their jobs properly and were imposed in breach of contract.

Cabin crew agreed last month to fly with reduced staffing after failing to win a court injunction banning the changes last month until a High Court decision on the dispute is due on Feb. 1.

"We do not understand why Unite is threatening you with disrupted travel plans now over an issue that the courts are preparing to resolve in a few weeks," Walsh said in his letter to passengers.

It would be the first walkout since three days of action in 1997.

"It's an incredibly sad day for the BA brand," said Bob Atkinson, of travel Web site "The union could have easily opted for a time when fewer passengers are traveling. After all, they are the people who pay for the tickets that ultimately pay the crew's wages.

"So the action is unlikely to gain sympathy from the public who will just see this as a selfish attack on the people the crews need to keep them in work."

A statement from the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association, a section of Unite, said they had been forced into industrial action by the company.

"We are deeply saddened to have reached the point where we must take industrial action to get our voices heard, but feel that we have been left with no other choice," the statement said. "We do not want to cause inconvenience, so even at this late stage we offer an opportunity for disruption not to occur."

McCluskey said the union hoped the action could still be avoided and that they'd made the decision to strike with "a heavy heart."

"We would like passengers to be angry with the company," he said. "It is something of an irony that the people responsible for making BA the best airline in the world are now engaged in a dispute."