BELEAGUERED airline British Airways (BA) is taking legal action against the Unite union in a desperate bid to prevent cabin crew from striking over the peak Christmas period, it said yesterday.

Thousands of cabin crew voted to walk out for 12 days from 22 December earlier this week, in the latest blow to an airline which is drowning under a £3.7bn pension deficit and record financial losses. The staff are up in arms over BA’s plans to cut crew numbers on flights and freeze pay.

The move to take legal action came after BA wrote to Unite, highlighting what it called “irregularities” in its strike ballot. The airline claims Unite balloted members for the vote who no longer work for, or are soon to be leaving, BA. The case will be heard in the High Court today at 2pm.

Staff have been leaving the airline in droves, taking offered voluntary redundancy as part of a massive restructuring which is aimed at saving £100m.

The letter, sent yesterday, was the third to be put to the union; Unite has not replied.
“We are absolutely determined to do whatever we can to protect our customers from this appalling, unjustified decision from Unite,” chief executive Willie Walsh said.

“We do not want to see a million Christmases ruined,” he added.

Unite accused BA’s “macho management” of “holding Christmas travellers hostage,” and said the airline bosses preferred confrontation to negotiation. Unite claims to have offered to suspend the action last Friday.

Rival carriers EasyJet and Virgin are laying on extra flights and deals to help stranded BA passengers over the period.“We have sold 3,000 seats in the past 12 hours,” Virgin said yesterday afternoon. It plans to put larger aircraft on routes to cities such as New York and Delhi.

Airline analyst Andrew Fitchie from Collins Stewart predicted budget carrier EasyJet could see an extra £40m to £50m in revenues because of the strikes. In a backup move, BA is also seeking to establish which cabin crew would be willing to work through the strikes.

City experts have been scathing about the decision to strike, insisting the airline needs to change if it is to survive. “The strike is tantamount to knocking another big nail into the coffin,” BGC Partners’ Howard Wheeldon said. “Have the unions no idea that the ultimate damage could be terminal for the airline and staff?” he added.