Brits Get Some Holiday Cheer: No British Air Strike

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Toby Melville / REUTERS

A British Airways employee leaves a union meeting in Sandown, in southwest London

Spare a thought for the British traveler this holiday season. Heavy snow forecast for late Thursday, usually enough to bring the country to a halt, will likely disrupt many people's weekend road and rail journeys. Thousands more, meanwhile, are stranded overseas after Wednesday's collapse of Flyglobespan, Scotland's biggest airline. And with baggage handlers and check-in staff at some British airports planning a series of strikes over pay starting Dec. 22, it hardly feels like the festive season.

Thank goodness, then, for unexpected gifts. In a ruling issued Thursday, London's High Court declared that a 12-day strike planned for later this month by British Airways cabin crew was illegal. The proposed walkout — over cuts to staff numbers and a freeze on pay imposed by the airline last month — can now no longer go ahead. The court's decision marked a "disgraceful day for democracy," the trade union behind the strike, Unite, said in response. But the 1 million passengers that could have been affected were undoubtedly relieved by the decision. And BA, for its part, said it was "delighted."

Little wonder. Industrial action could have cost Europe's third biggest airline as much as $50 million each day had the strike gone ahead as planned on Dec. 22. That's cash — and cachet — the struggling carrier can ill-afford to lose. Tumbling first-class passenger numbers and a ballooning fuel bill left the airline with a $656 million pretax loss in the 12 months ending March 31. It lost plenty more in the first half of this year too. The airline's $6 billion pension deficit, meanwhile, is among the biggest in the U.K.

For BA's bank balance, then, stifling the strike was key. In applying for the High Court injunction, the carrier argued that the union's ballot wrongly included hundreds of BA staff who had already agreed to take voluntary redundancy before any industrial action would have started. Unite insisted that it had tried to find out which of BA's 13,000 cabin crew were planning to quit but that the airline offered little help. Discounting them would have done little to change the result, though: 92% of voters were in favor of a strike.

Not surprisingly, Unite pledged Thursday to hold another vote, a process that usually takes at least a couple of weeks. But by bungling the first one and choosing to stretch out the proposed strike over 12 days — a duration BA staff weren't aware of at the time of the ballot — Unite may have let the momentum swing BA's way. Derek Simpson, the union's joint general secretary, admitted on Dec. 15 that the length of the stoppage was "probably over the top." Passengers, meanwhile, sided firmly with the airline. "It is disgusting that BA staff realize they can throw their weight around and ruin so many people's holidays," Londoner Anthea Barteau told the BBC. "I feel like I have had my stomach kicked out by a bunch of overpaid waiting staff," said another, Aoin Douglas of Liverpool. Cabin crew at BA typically earn more than those of any other British airlines and twice as much as those of rival Virgin Atlantic.

Both sides, then, have an interest in resolving the spat. Airline and union bosses resumed a second day of talks Thursday aimed at finding a middle ground. Unite's biggest gripe: the cuts, part of BA's plan to pare staff costs by $230 million, were imposed on employees without proper consultation. "It may be that an enforced calling off of the strike will lead to some tough but serious negotiation around the table," says John Strickland, an aviation consultant and a former BA executive. But "it still doesn't mean it's going to be an easy ride."

For Britons venturing outside this holiday season, that's never been more true.