Picket lines were mounted at Heathrow Airport today as British Airways cabin crew launched the first of a wave of strikes which threatens to disrupt flights for weeks.
The walkout by members of the Unite union went ahead after hopes of a last-minute deal collapsed, with the two sides engaged in a war of words.
The row continued today, with Tony Woodley, Unite’s joint leader, accusing BA’s chief executive, Willie Walsh, of wanting “regime change” in the union’s cabin crew branch, Bassa.
Mr Woodley said BA had achieved its original aim of cutting 1,700 cabin crew jobs, but had since “broadened” the dispute.
“Those savings are in the bank. This dispute has been broadened, so this is not just about cost downs, it is about regime change. It is personal because of the dislike and trust of the branch.”
Mr Woodley told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the strike would have been suspended if BA had accepted an offer he made yesterday to call off the action if the airline returned travel concessions to staff who took part in strikes in March.
BA said it was concentrating on its contingency plans to deal with the five days of action this week, pledging to carry 70% of its customers.
The airline has accused Mr Woodley of negotiating via the media rather than through the conciliation service Acas and pointed the finger of blame at the union for failing to continue with talks yesterday.
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 has also attacked Unite’s joint leader, Derek Simpson, for giving a “running commentary” on his Twitter account of talks at Acas on Saturday.
Mr Walsh said he was “shocked and angry” over Mr Simpson’s behaviour.
The airline said its priority now was helping customers caught in the middle of the dispute, adding that its focus would 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 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.
The union is planning two further five-day strikes, including a walkout during the school half-term next week.
BA said in a statement: “Our operations around the world have got off to a good start this morning.
“The numbers of cabin crew reporting at Heathrow are currently at the levels we need to operate our published schedule.
“Over the next five days, we will fly a full normal schedule at Gatwick and London City Airports. Cabin crew at Gatwick are continuing to report for work as normal this morning.
“At Heathrow, our aim is to fly as many customers as we can during the strike period and we will be operating more than 60% of our long-haul programme and more than 50% of our short-haul flights.
“We will fly more than 60,000 booked customers around the world every day between May 24 and May 28, despite these five days being targeted for strikes by Unite.
“Many thousands more will be able to use seats we have secured on more than 50 other airlines to reach their destination if they still wish to travel, or be rebooked on to an alternative BA flight departing within the next 355 days.
“Refunds are also available for customers whose flights have been cancelled.
“We will be operating the majority of our revised short-haul schedule at Heathrow using our own aircraft and cabin crew, but this will be supplemented by leasing up to eight aircraft with pilots and cabin crews from other UK or European airlines.
“Customers are advised to check ba.com on a regular basis to see if their flight is still operating before departing for the airport. If their flight has been cancelled they should not come to the airport but contact British Airways or their travel agent.
“We continue to be available for talks with Unite.”