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U.K. transit crews may follow British Air strike

Baggage handlers and check-in staff at Heathrow and Aberdeen airports announced strikes in tandem with work stoppages by British Airways cabin crews on Wednesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

More than a million people faced travel chaos over the Christmas and New Year's holidays as baggage handlers and check-in staff at Heathrow and Aberdeen airports announced strikes in tandem with work stoppages by British Airways cabin crews.

BA applied for an emergency court injunction on Wednesday to stop the 12-day strike by its workers, due to start Tuesday, and also held last-ditch talks with union leaders.

BA Chief Executive Willie Walsh has called the planned strike, which escalates a bitter dispute over job cuts, pay and working conditions, a "senseless" action that will ruin Christmas for many ordinary people.

The BA walkout would likely ground most of BA's planes at a time it normally operates 650 flights and carries 90,000 passengers each day.

And travelers seeking alternative flights were hit Wednesday with the news that baggage handlers and check-in staff at London's Heathrow and the Aberdeen airport will hold a trio of 48-hour strikes -- the first also starting on Tuesday.

There was no relief to be found on the rails, either. British Eurostar train drivers announced Wednesday they will walk out on Friday and Saturday, but the operator of the train service between Britain and continental Europe said it was confident it could run a normal service by using replacement drivers from France and Belgium.

The baggage handlers, check-in staff and Eurostar drivers are all taking action over pay disputes -- an issue unlikely to win favor with Britons, whose holidays this year come at the end of Britain's worst recession since World War II.

The planned strike couldn't come at a worse time for BA, which has been one of the airlines hardest hit by the global recession because of its heavy running costs and reliance on increasingly unpopular premium fares. Already expected to post record losses this year, analysts estimate the airline will lose up to $49 million a day if the strike goes ahead.

BA argues the disputed changes to staffing and pay -- including a pay freeze in 2010, a switch to part-time work for 3,000 staff and a reduction in cabin crew sizes from 15 to 14 on long-haul flights from Heathrow airport -- are necessary to ride out its dire financial situation.

Unite, the union behind both the BA and ground staff walkouts at London's Heathrow and Aberdeen airports planned for Dec. 22, Dec. 26 and Jan. 3, admitted the strike timing was unfortunate.

Kevin Hall, Unite's regional industrial officer, said the union had been trying to get SAS Ground Services, the employer of the Heathrow and Aberdeen ground staff "to move on a fair wage deal for months."

Unite union general secretary Tony Woodley said the cabin crew staff were prepared to call off their strike -- but only if BA agreed to suspend its imposition of new work conditions on cabin crew.

"Let's have a pause for peace, and we will call the strike off," Woodley told BBC television.

Talks between BA management and Unite leaders were still taking place Wednesday afternoon, but BA earlier filed for the injunction at London's High Court, claiming irregularities in the strike ballot made it invalid. Justice Laura Cox indicated she would announce a ruling on Thursday afternoon.

The union said Monday that 92.5 percent of the approximate 13,000 members balloted had voted in favor of the BA walkout.

The airline's lawyer, Bruce Carr, said the ballot unlawfully included the votes of hundreds of members the union knew would not still be employed by BA at the time of the strike because they had accepted voluntary buyouts.

Carr said the union encouraged the ineligible members to vote "knowing that for many of them, this would be a chance to inflict damage on their former employer without any personal or financial costs."

The union alleges the changes to pay and conditions are in breach of contract, but last month agreed to fly with reduced staffing after failing to win its own court injunction banning their imposition until a High Court decision on the dispute Feb. 1.

"Instead of sensibly awaiting the outcome of its own legal proceedings, just over six weeks away, Unite has elected to call industrial action" to maximize disruption, BA's lawyer Carr told the High Court.

Rival travel companies have been quick to take advantage of the BA dispute. Among them, Virgin Atlantic -- a strong critic of BA's proposed revenue-sharing deal with American Airlines -- has said it will employ larger aircraft on key routes out of London, including to New York, Washington and Delhi, over the strike period.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown waded into the increasingly acrimonious dispute on Wednesday, urging BA and Unite to come to a deal to ensure travelers "a strike-free and trouble-free Christmas."