British Airways was on a fresh collision course with cabin crew tonight as it faced the threat of a strike which could hit flights in the busy run-up to Easter.
Unite announced that 13,000 of its members at the airline would vote again on whether to take industrial action in a long-running dispute over jobs, pay and working conditions.
The cabin crew were due to stage 12 days of strikes over Christmas, but BA took legal action to prevent the action going ahead.
The British High Court ruled that the strikes would have been unlawful because Unite had balloted workers who had subsequently left the airline.
The previous ballot returned a 9-1 majority in favour of action in an 80% turnout, which the union said reflected the anger of cabin crew at imposed changes to their working conditions.
In an internal email to staff tonight, BA chief executive Willie Walsh asked for volunteers to work alongside cabin crew who decide not to take part in any strike.
“There has been a seismic shift in our industry, with the slump in business travel driving down our revenue by £1bn (€1.1bn). The fragility of our industry means many airlines have gone bust and others, such as our oneworld partner Japan Airlines, are on the brink of bankruptcy.
“Despite this and the recent talks at the TUC, Unite still refuses to accept our cost-saving proposals and, as you know, it has announced another cabin crew strike ballot, raising the prospect of major disruption to our customers.
“I know many of you will once again be appalled at the distress a strike would cause our customers and the damage it will do to our company – especially when so many of you have already made sacrifices.
“That is why I am writing to you today. I am asking for volunteers to back BA by training to work alongside cabin crew who choose not to support a strike, so we are ready to keep our customers flying as much as we possibly can if this strike goes ahead,” he wrote.
Unite’s joint leader Tony Woodley attacked the move as a “provocative” attempt to disrupt negotiations.
“It is inconceivable that BA should even be thinking of running its airline - the national carrier – with scab labour who have had only minimum training. This shows contempt for professionalism of cabin crew.
“BA management must stop the posturing and get back to the negotiating table because only through agreement with its own employees can BA keep on flying.”
Unite said there was still no deal on the crucial issues of imposed changes to the workload and working conditions of the airline’s cabin crew.
Assistant general secretary Len McCluskey said: “We have been engaged in intensive discussions with the company over the last few days, but unfortunately we have not been able to secure an agreement yet.
“We therefore have to honour our commitment to give our members the voice they were denied by the courts before Christmas, and hold a fresh ballot for industrial action.
“In notifying the company of this, I have reiterated that we want talks to continue, and that the union is prepared to meet any place, any time, to try and reach an agreement which addresses the real concerns of BA’s skilled, loyal and professional employees while giving the company the savings it needs to stay airborne.
“We have told management all along that this dispute, and the damage it does to BA’s prospects, can only finally be resolved through negotiation.
“That remains our position, and I hope the company will make the best use of the time available before the ballot closes.”
Unite said it had put forward a fresh offer aimed at making “substantial savings”, including a two-year pay freeze.
National officer Steve Turner said the ballot would close on February 22, raising the threat of industrial action from March 1.
“We have put a fresh proposal on the table which gives the company pretty much what they are looking for in terms of future savings, but unfortunately they have failed to grasp it.
“We have offered to continue talking throughout the balloting process and I hope that common sense will prevail.”
Mr Turner said cabin crew were just as angry about the imposed changes to working conditions as they were last year, and he expected another resounding yes vote in the new ballot.
The union was confident BA would not be able to mount another legal challenge to the ballot, he added
A BA spokesman said: “We are saddened but not surprised that Unite has called another strike ballot.
“Unite’s decision, foreshadowed in a letter to cabin crew on January 8, calls into question its good faith in the negotiations we took part in throughout last week in an effort to reach a settlement without disruption. Nonetheless, we remain available for talks at any time without preconditions.
“Over the past year, many British Airways staff have made significant contributions toward the company’s vital programme of permanent cost reduction. It is regrettable that Unite, on behalf of its cabin crew members, has as yet offered no more than empty gestures.
“In recent discussions, Unite has put forward proposals that would actually result in a large increase in costs by reversing the changes to onboard crew numbers made last November.
“In an economic climate in which we are facing record losses, this approach is completely unrealistic.
“Our cabin crew are rightly renowned for their skills and professionalism. Under the package we have put forward, our crew will remain the best rewarded in the UK. There would be absolutely no justification for a strike.
“If Unite eventually proceeds to an actual strike, we will continue to put our customers’ interests first. We will provide assistance for those crew who wish to work normally and we will explore all options to enable us to operate the best flying programme possible under the circumstances.
“We will not allow Unite to ruin this airline, and we believe we have the support of our customers and the vast majority of our staff in that objective.”
Britain's shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers said: “This is grim news for passengers. People will be concerned to learn that Unite are continuing their efforts to disrupt travel plans and hold BA and the travelling public to ransom.
“As Labour cosy up to the unions ahead of the general election, Gordon Brown must make it clear whether he puts the interests of the travelling public above those of his union paymasters.”