British Airways has asked its 40,000 staff to work without pay for up to a month as the ailing airline seeks to cut costs.

The airline, which lost a record $657 million in 2008 amid surging fuel prices and a collapse in premium-fare passengers, is seeking to reduce costs dramatically and has already offered staff unpaid leave or a reduction in hours.

Willie Walsh, BA’s chief executive, has now gone a step further by asking staff to volunteer for between one and four weeks of unpaid work in what he says is a "fight for survival."

Walsh, who said last week that he would work for free in July, has set a deadline of June 24 for employees to volunteer for unpaid work. He said that the salary deductions would be spread over three to six months wherever possible.

BA denied that those staff who volunteered for unpaid work would be given preference if the airline imposes a further round of lay-offs.

The airline is currently negotiating pay deals and job reductions with its ground handling staff, pilots and cabin crew, who have been told that the airline needs to settle discussions by the end of the month. In total, BA is thought to be seeking as many as 4,000 job cuts, including 2,000 voluntary redundancies among the 14,000 cabin crew.

Last week, it emerged that BA pays its cabin crew and pilots up to twice as much as rival airlines. The average salary for BA’s 14,000 cabin crew, including bonuses and allowances, is close to $50,000, compared with $24,000 at Virgin Atlantic and $33,000 at easyJet. BA’s pilots earn an average of $176,000, compared with $147,000 at Virgin and $117,000 at easyJet.

The request for volunteers to work for free was made in the company’s BA news magazine. In an article entitled "Action Time," Walsh wrote, "I am looking for every single part of the company to take part in some way. It really counts. We face a fight for survival. These are the toughest trading conditions we have ever seen and there simply are no green shoots."

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