British Airways cabin crew will go ahead with a wave of strikes from tomorrow after hopes of a last-ditch deal collapsed.
The joint leader of Unite, Tony Woodley, had offered to suspend the industrial action if the airline gave back travel concessions, but the war of words between the two sides continued, with BA saying it was disappointed he had taken to negotiation via the media rather than through Acas.
BA said in a statement: “We had agreed to a request from Acas to meet this afternoon and are surprised that Unite did not take advantage of this.
“We have already offered to reinstate travel concessions to cabin crew once all elements of our offer have been implemented.
“Of more concern to us is Tony Woodley’s comment to the media that he wants to revisit certain proposals in our offer, when previously he had indicated that these were agreed. This position reinforces our view that Bassa (the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association), at the centre of this dispute, is not serious in trying to come to a negotiated agreement with British Airways - and that Tony cannot control Bassa.
“We call on him to call off the strike action and return to the table with Acas to finish the discussions that started yesterday.”
BA said its priority now was helping customers caught in the middle of the dispute, adding that its focus will be on flying tens of thousands of passengers in the coming days despite the strike.
“All flights at London Gatwick and London City will operate as normal. At Heathrow we expect to operate more than 60% of long haul services and more than 50% of short haul flights and we will add to that schedule where we can.”
Mr Woodley said earlier today there was an agreement in principle to end the bitter dispute, and that “good progress” had been made in talks at Acas yesterday before they had to be abandoned amid scenes of chaos.
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 will now walk out for five days from tomorrow, followed by two further 5-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 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 (€611.7m) 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.”