British Airways Cabin Crews Take The Emergency Exit

Cabin staff with one of Europe's biggest airlines are expected to go on strike on Monday, bringing yet more chaos to trans-Atlantic travel. British Airways says it hopes to maintain most services despite the strike, which is now more about saving face than reaching a settlement.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In Britain, the union representing British Airways cabin crews says its members will begin the first of a series of five-day walkouts on Monday. Government mediators had tried to bring the two sides together this weekend but the negotiations ended in chaos.

Vicki Barker reports from London.

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

VICKI BARKER: Saturdays talk ended disastrously, when several dozen protestors managed to make it into the supposedly secret venue, apparently after union leaders posted details of the negotiations on Twitter. They surrounded the British Airways CEO, Willie Walsh, while union leader Tony Woodley desperately pleaded with them to leave.

(Soundbite of people arguing)

BARKER: A huge embarrassment for union leaders. They've been fending off management's charge that they can control hardliners representing the cabin crews.

On paper, there doesn't seem to be much distance between the two sides. The union's given in to most of management's cost-cutting demands. But after hundreds of workers joined an earlier illegal strike, Willie Walsh made good his threat to fire the instigators and yanked travel perks from the rest.

Now, many of the cabin crews don't actually live in England. They need those travel privileges to get to work. But the famously combative Walsh walked into the weekend talks saying he'd already given as much ground as he intended to.

Mr. WILLIE Walsh (CEO, British Airways): It's well known that I said it would never happen, but I compromised and I gave them the framework that would see cabin crew get their concessions back, get their travel perks back. That, however, has been rejected.

BARKER: Even with the unions decision to go ahead with the strike, Walsh says British Airways will still be able to fly 60 percent of long-haul and half of all short-haul flights out of Heathrow, the focal point of the dispute. But that will still mean cancellations or delays for thousands of travelers and it will mean more lost income for the airline, which last week reported a record $766 million in losses.

Employment lawyer Mark Marion(ph) says that by planning four five-day strikes in the space of a month, the union is waging a pretty canny war of attrition.

Mr. MARK MARION (Employment Lawyer): It's one thing expecting managers to work three or four days during a strike. It's quite another to expect them to work three or four weeks. So, I think the union's done the right thing if it's trying to get what it wants.

BARKER: But the company says it still has $2.6 billion in the bank, potentially giving it the time and the money to wait for the union to blink.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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