British Airways “will be flying tomorrow” even if talks to avert a staff walkout prove unsuccessful, the airline’s chief executive insisted today.
Willie Walsh said BA’s contingency plans meant the “vast majority” of passengers would still be able to travel if negotiations to prevent a series of cabin crew strikes do not bear fruit.
Talks aimed at settling the dispute ended in disarray yesterday when scores of demonstrators stormed the building in central London where the meeting was being held.
And there was further controversy as BA accused Derek Simpson, joint leader of Unite union, of sending Tweets throughout the afternoon giving a “running commentary” of the negotiations.
Mr Walsh said there was an “opportunity” of a breakthrough if talks could be reconvened today, but told BBC 1’s Andrew Marr show: “If the strike goes ahead at midnight tonight we are ready.
“British Airways will be flying tomorrow. We will not be grounded by the actions of a tiny minority who are clearly out of touch with reality.”
Police were called to the headquarters of the conciliation service Acas yesterday after members of the Socialist Workers Party managed to get to the 23rd floor where leaders of Unite were meeting with Mr Walsh.
The talks had to be abandoned amid scenes of chaos as the union officials and Mr Walsh were surrounded by the chanting demonstrators.
Tony Woodley, joint leader of Unite which represents BA cabin crew, angrily remonstrated with the protesters telling them to “shut up”.
But the protesters, many holding up Socialist Workers Party banners, stayed in the building until they were ejected by police officers.
And BA issued a statement saying it was “astonished” after a string of Tweets appeared under the name derekamicus, on a page with a photograph of Mr Simpson.
One read: “Willie and Tony locking horns over accusations of unequal treatment of allegations of bullying,” followed by another reading: “Arguments over the 8 sacked workers,” and then: “Fear of more sackings to come.”
Mr Walsh told Mr Marr he was “shocked and angry” to learn that Mr Simpson was sending the Tweets during yesterday’s meeting, adding: “That really does undermine the discussions that took place, and I think it raises questions about how this union operates.”
BA’s chief executive said the remaining issue at the heart of the dispute was the refusal of the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association (Bassa) to accept a deal agreed by Mr Woodley and Mr Simpson.
Staff travel perks were a “distraction” from that main issue, Mr Walsh insisted, saying a “framework” to restore the perks had been put in place as part of a series of concessions.
Asked about the possibility of a breakthrough today, Mr Walsh told Mr Marr: “I believe there is always an opportunity to that.
“I think we could have come close yesterday. If it wasn’t for Derek’s actions and clearly then the mob storming the building, we may have been able to make significant progress.
“There were a number of issues that were I think successfully addressed yesterday, so there is always hope.”
Mr Walsh also said he was “sorry and hugely disappointed” for any passengers affected by the latest strike.
Unite has said it is ready to resume talks “at any time” to settle the dispute.
This week BA announced record annual losses of £531m (€611m) due to lower passenger numbers, higher costs and the impact of the long-running dispute over jobs, pay and working conditions.
But Mr Walsh said: “BA will survive and will be stronger because we are tackling the core issues.”