LONDON – Recession-weary passengers lashed out at British Airways PLC workers Tuesday as the carrier began last-ditch legal action to avert a Christmas cabin crew strike that threatens to ruin holiday plans for about a million travelers.
Faced with the possibility that the bulk of its planes will remain grounded at the busiest time of the year, the loss-making airline applied to the High Court for an injunction to prevent the planned 12-day walkout that is due to start Dec. 22.
An emergency hearing was scheduled for Wednesday but that still left passengers in limbo, contemplating soaring prices for alternative flights -- or train journeys -- to enjoy Christmas and New Year celebrations at the end of what for many has been a tough year.
Most of their ire was reserved for the cabin crew, who are taking the action to protest large-scale job cuts and pay freezes by the airline, which in turn argues the changes are necessary to ride out its dire financial situation.
"In this present climate and the way BA is going, I think the staff are looking at things the wrong way," said Edinburgh technician Alan Little, 53, who is due to fly from London's Heathrow Airport on Dec. 27 to visit his sister in Kuwait.
"I think, at the moment, there are people running round like headless chickens," Little added, as he considered his options.
Rival travel companies were quick to jump into the fray. Virgin Atlantic, which has been strongly critical of BA's proposed revenue-sharing deal with American Airlines, said it will employ larger aircraft on key routes out of London, including to New York, Washington and Delhi, over the planned strike period.
Domestic airline BMI ran newspaper advertisements with the tagline "BA is grounded but you needn't be," while Virgin Trains said it was looking at running extra services on the popular London to Glasgow route.
But many alternatives were proving too expensive for travelers who are still feeling the effects of Britain's worst economic downturn since World War II.
London accountant Mandeep Baura, 29, who is booked to fly from Heathrow to Vancouver, Canada, on Christmas Day for a vacation with his wife, said he has spent the past day searching for flights "but that's pretty much not an option."
"We're looking at prices of more than $3,250," Baura said. "That's quite a premium."
The likely revenue gift to its competitors couldn't come at a worse time for BA, which has been one of the airlines worst hit by the global recession because of its heavy running costs and reliance on increasingly unpopular premium fares.
Already expected to post record losses this year, analysts estimate that the airline will lose up to $49 million a day if the strike goes ahead during a time when it normally operates 650 flights and carries 90,000 passengers daily.
In the longer run, travel agents warned that the strike could leave a permanent "ABBA effect" -- Anyone But BA.
"This is a double disaster for BA," said Bob Atkinson of travelsupermarket.com. "Its customers are now going to be significantly affected and the airline, the U.K.'s largest carrier, will take a financial hit from the action."
With that in mind, the airline said it was seeking to stop the planned walkout on the grounds that the Unite union ballot of some 13,000 members contained "irregularities," including votes from people no longer employed by the airline.
The carrier said that was a "clear breach" of trade union and labor laws, rendering the strike vote invalid. Unite announced Monday that cabin crew had voted nine to one in favor of the strike in a ballot with 80 percent turnout.
"We are absolutely determined to do whatever we can to protect our customers from this appalling, unjustified decision from Unite," BA Chief Executive Willie Walsh said. "We do not want to see a million Christmases ruined."
BA has also been attempting to rework its flight schedules for the strike period, should it go ahead, and has offered affected customers the chance to rebook flights for a later date.
The airline said it had sent three letters to Unite since last Friday highlighting the alleged irregularities in the ballot and had given the union a Tuesday afternoon deadline to call off the action, but had received no reply.
Walsh said BA remained open to resuming talks with the union at any point, but Unite spokesman Derek Simpson said the airline had declined its offer to suspend any industrial action if BA agreed to suspend its own imposition of new conditions on cabin crew.
"Willie Walsh turned this offer down flat," Simpson said. "Confrontation, not negotiation, is his approach, even though an industrial dispute will cost the company vastly more money than his projected savings from attacking cabin crew conditions."
Cabin crews agreed last month to fly with reduced staffing after failing to win a court injunction banning the changes, which the union alleges are in breach of contract, until a High Court decision on the dispute is due on Feb. 1.
"Christmas travel on British Airways is being held hostage by a macho management which prefers imposition and confrontation, or even litigation, to negotiation," said Simpson.