A union leader tonight offered to suspend strikes by British Airways cabin crew if the airline gave back travel concessions, in a last-gasp attempt to halt the action.
Tony Woodley, joint leader of Unite, said there was an agreement in principle to end the bitter dispute, and that “good progress” had been made in talks before they had to be abandoned amid scenes of chaos at the conciliation service Acas.
Scores of members of the Socialist Workers Party invaded the talks and surrounded Mr Woodley and BA’s chief executive Willie Walsh, who hurriedly left the building via a rear exit yesterday evening.
Mr Woodley said the incident had been “catastrophic” for the talks, which ended abruptly.
Shortly after the invasion, BA attacked Unite’s joint leader Derek Simpson for giving a “running commentary” on the Twitter website.
Thousands of Unite members are set to walk out for five days from tomorrow, followed by two further five-day strikes in the coming weeks.
Mr Woodley said: “We have seen diversions this morning with people talking about Twitter and a variety of other things. This is an unfortunate diversion from the main and important issues that stand before us – making sure that this dispute is settled.
“Yesterday we made some good progress with regards to discipline of our members, with the introduction of Acas into the disciplinary process that is right in the direction.
“We have already made it clear that we have got an agreement on the business issues in principle.
“In a sign of good faith I am making this offer – Willie, turn around and reinstate our people’s travel without the unnecessary vindictive removal of their service and this union will call off tonight’s strike and suspend the action to allow us to conclude the other issues that we were making good progress on yesterday before we were so rudely interrupted.
“Reinstate the travel now and those strikes scheduled tonight will be suspended to allow us to continue to conduct our business in a decent and proper way.”
Union sources said the talks at Acas yesterday had reached a “crucial” point when they were suddenly brought to a chaotic halt.
Mr Walsh said BA was prepared for the strike because of its contingency plans and its schedule which was drawn up last week.
He told BBC 1’s Andrew Marr show: “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.”
BA said 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.
BA announced record annual losses of £531m (€611m) last week 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.”
An Acas spokesman said: “Given the events of yesterday we shall not be making any public comment in relation to any discussions we are holding with the parties.”