British Airways and union leaders hold more talks ahead of court ruling on strike

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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LONDON - British Airways and union leaders were holding talks again on Thursday as they awaited a court ruling on the airline's bid to stop a 12-day strike over the Christmas and New Year's break by its cabin crew.
It is the second day of discussions between BA and the Unite labour union aimed at breaking a deadlock over disputed changes to pay and working conditions that have led to the planned walkout, which is due to begin on Tuesday.
The industrial action is threatening to ruin Christmas and New Year vacation plans for more than a million people after baggage handlers and check-in staff at Heathrow and Aberdeen airports also announced strikes.
The High Court is due to rule in the afternoon on BA's filing for an emergency injunction to stop the cabin crew walkout, which the airline argues is illegal because Unite's strike ballot of around 13,000 workers included some 800 members who had taken voluntary redundancy packages.
The airline's lawyer, Bruce Carr, told the court Wednesday that the union was showing "withering contempt for the interests and concerns of over a million passengers."
Carr said that around 800 members who had taken voluntary redundancy packages from BA were included in the ballot, rendering the vote invalid.
Unite has said that the ballot was undertaken in good faith and that the result reflected strong support for the strike. It noted an 80 per cent turnout for the ballot, which resulted in a 92.5 per cent "yes" vote.
If an injunction is granted by Justice Laura Cox, the union could hold another strike ballot, but would have to give several days notice of rescheduled strike action.
But there are some signs of unhappiness among BA staff who voted for the walkout as the public backlash grows.
"Twelve days over the Christmas period was a step too far. I certainly wasn't aware that in voting to strike it would be 12 days and I have to say I was shocked," one worker wrote on a chat site for members of the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association, a section of Unite.
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.
While angry BA passengers await the court's decision, other festive season travellers were also hoping for a breakthrough in disputes that have resulted in planned walkouts by Eurostar train drivers and ground staff at Heathrow and Aberdeen airports.
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 when British drivers walk out on Friday and Saturday.
But planned walkouts by baggage handlers and check-in staff employed by SAS Ground Services at London's Heathrow and Aberdeen airports in a trio of 48-hour strikes - the first also starting on Tuesday - would have a much larger impact.
Unite, which is also representing the ground staff, has said it is willing to call off both the BA and SAS strikes if the employers agree to suspend the changes to pay and other working conditions.
Those workers and the Eurostar drivers are also taking action over pay disputes - an issue unlikely to win favour 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 30 million pounds ($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.
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.
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.

Organizations: British Airways, High Court, Eurostar British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association SAS Ground Services American Airlines

Geographic location: LONDON, Heathrow, Aberdeen Britain Europe France Belgium New York Washington Delhi

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