British Airways cabin crew staff went on strike today after hopes of a last-ditch deal collapsed.
The five-day walk-out commenced as planned despite attempts to reach an agreement over the weekend.
In the hours leading up to the midnight deadline, joint leader of Unite, Tony Woodley, offered to suspend the industrial action if the airline gave back travel concessions it stripped members of following the last strike.
But the war of words between the two sides continued throughout the day, with BA saying it was disappointed Mr Woodley took to negotiation via the media rather than through Acas.
Yesterday BA pointed the finger of blame at the union for failing to continue with talks on Sunday.
In a statement, the company said it had agreed to a request from Acas to meet during the afternoon and was “surprised” that Unite did not do likewise.
It added: “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.”
BA also attacked Unite’s joint leader Derek Simpson for giving a “running commentary” on his Twitter account of the supposedly confidential talks.
Chief executive Willie Walsh said he was “shocked and angry” by Mr Simpson’s behaviour.
The airline 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 longhaul services and more than 50% of shorthaul flights and we will add to that schedule where we can.”
Mr Woodley said yesterday that there was an agreement in principle to end the bitter dispute, and that “good progress” had been made in talks at Acas 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 Mr 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 following a day in which progress had been made.
He said: “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.”
Union sources said the talks at Acas on Saturday had reached a “crucial” point when they were suddenly brought to a chaotic halt.
Even as time was running out to avert the walk out, Mr Woodley appeared to hold out a last minute olive branch to BA bosses.
“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,” he said. In return he was prepared to call off the strike to allow talks to continue “in a decent and proper way”.
But it led to no movement from BA.
The five-day walk out starting today will be followed by two further five-day strikes in the coming weeks unless an agreement can be reached.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said last night: “A strike is not going to resolve the outstanding issues, however difficult they are.”
The Tory MP expressed disappointment that no face-to-face talks took place on Sunday.
He added: “The jobs of all BA staff depend on the airline’s future competitiveness and the loyalty of all its customers and in order to protect both I now urge BA cabin crew to keep flying and keep talking.”