Britain's High Court delivered an early Christmas present to around one million travelers on Thursday by granting British Airways an emergency injunction to stop a 12-day strike by its cabin crews.
BA celebrated its success in the latest round of an increasingly acrimonious dispute with workers over pay cuts and reduced staffing levels. The Unite labor union deemed it a "disgraceful day for democracy."
The strike organized by Unite, which had been due to begin on Tuesday, would likely have grounded the majority of BA's planes at a time the loss-making airline normally operates 650 flights and carries 90,000 passengers each day.
Even some of the cabin crew staff who voted in favor of the walkout announced Monday were having second thoughts about its severity amid a growing backlash from a British public.
In the end, Unite was forced to call off the walkout on a technicality.
The High Court backed BA's claim that the ballot of around 13,000 workers was illegal because it included around 800 members who had taken voluntary redundancy packages and had already left, or were in the process of leaving, the airline.
Justice Laura Cox said that the balance lay "firmly" with granting the injunction and refused Unite permission to appeal her decision in the High Court.
"A strike of this kind over the twelve days of Christmas is fundamentally more damaging to BA and the wider public than a strike taking place at almost any other time of the year," Cox said.
Unite warned immediately that it would hold a fresh ballot if the dispute is not resolved through talks with BA management, pointing out that an 80 percent turnout for the rejected ballot resulted in a 92.5 percent "yes" vote.
"Given the clear mood of cabin crew about management's imposition of changes on their working lives, this means that the spectre of further disruption to the company's operations cannot be removed," Unite's joint general secretaries, Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley said in a statement. "Passing the buck to the courts to do management's job for them was never going to be the answer."
The dispute is likely to drag on for some time. The union cannot hold another vote until after Christmas, with a rescheduled strike unlikely before February at the earliest. The High Court is also due to rule on a preexisting court action by the union on the cost-cutting measures imposed by BA on Feb. 1.
The airline is already deep in the red with demand for flying down and it stood to lose as much as 30 million pounds ($49 million) a day over the planned strike period. It said it was "delighted" by the court's ruling.
"It is a decision that will be welcomed by hundreds of thousands of families in the U.K. and around the world," BA said.
But holiday travelers are not entirely off the hook.
Baggage handlers and check-in staff employed by SAS Ground Services at London's Heathrow and Scotland's Aberdeen airport are due to hold the first of a trio of 48-hour strikes on Tuesday, while British Eurostar train drivers plan to walk out Friday and Saturday.
The operator of the high-speed rail service between Britain and continental Europe said it was confident it could run a normal service by using replacement drivers from France and Belgium. But the SAS staff walkouts on Dec. 22, Dec. 26 and Jan. 3 will hit travelers on Turkish, Emirates and Thai airlines at Heathrow and KLM, Air France, Wideroe and Atlantic at Aberdeen.
BA 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.