As many as one million holidaymakers flying with British Airways over the Christmas and New Year period are set to have their trips disrupted after cabin crew voted in favour of a strike.
The industrial action comes as part of a long-running dispute between unions and the airline over cost cutting. British Airways says financial pressures facing the industry – including the cost of fuel and taxes, the general recession and a reduction in passenger numbers – means cuts are justified.
However, Unite – the leading union in British Airways – is angry about new working arrangements introduced in November, which it says include the reduction of crew numbers on all flights.
“Unite has been pressing British Airways to come to a negotiated solution, however the airline rejected this in favour of imposed changes,” Unite says in a statement.
Nearly 14,000 cabin crew will strike for 12 days between 22 December until 2 January.
The strike could cause disruption for an estimated one million passengers, most of whom are unlikely to be able to find alternative flights during the seasonal rush.
Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways, says the strike action is “completely unjustified” at a time of financial difficulty for the airline.
It lost £400 million last year and expects to lose at least as much this year. “These are the worst financial results in our history. Our revenue is down £1 billion, so reducing costs is absolutely essential even to begin heading back toward profitability and long-term survival,” Walsh adds.
What are your rights?
In a statement, British Airwats says it is reworking its flight schedules for the strike period, and aims to announce new schedules “as quickly as possible”.
Until this happens, it is hard to know which flights will be affected. However, it is expected the airline will try to prioritise long-haul flights, with flights to other destinations easier to merge.
British Airway says it will inform affected customers directly if it has their e-mail address or by SMS text if it has their mobile phone number. If the contact details you gave the airline at the time of booking are no longer up-to-date, you should contact the airline to change these.
Walsh says: “We will do everything we can to assist you at what will clearly be a very difficult time if strikes go ahead.”
Customers who are booked with British Airways to travel between 22 December 2009 and 2 January 2010 – and for 48 hours on either side of those dates – should be able to move to a different flight departing in the next 12 months at no charge.
If your flight is cancelled because of industrial action, British Airways will offer you a refund, or allow you to rebook on to a different flight or re-route your journey.
It seems unlikely at this stage that British Airways will make arrangements for customers to travel with a different airline; if it does, customers considered to bring in lots of money to the airline are likely to be prioritised.
You can manage your booking on British Airway’s website, If you made your on ba.com or direct through a British Airways call centre, then you can call 0844 493 0787 in the UK (daily 6am to 8pm local time). Or if you're in the US, you can call 1 800 247 9297 (1 800 AIRWAYS).
If you made your booking through a travel agent, then you should contact it directly.As long as the company is part of the ATOL (Air Travel Organisers' Licensing) scheme, then you should be covered for your losses.
If you are left stranded overseas as a result of a cancelled flight, then British Airways must pay for meals and other 'reasonal costs ' - such as refreshments - during your waiting time under European Union regulations for travel delay.
It must also meet the cost for two telephone calls, emails or faxes. If you need overnight accommodation or transfers, then this should also be covered.
You should also be able to claim compensation under EU law - potentially for as much as £540 for delayed long-haul flights. However, British Airways is expected to avoid paying this by arguing the strikes were out of its control.
Bob Atkinson, travel expert from travelsupermarket.com, says that passengers who booked before 2 November 2009 should check their travel insurance to see if they have cover as a result of strike action or abandonment of your trip.
However, he adds: "Flights booked on 2 November or after are not covered under insurance for this type of action as the union announced a strike ballot on that day - therefore the prospect of a strike was public knowledge."
Atkinson also urges passengers to check who their airline actually is - while you might have been issued with a BA flight number, your carrier might be a different airline. "Known as code sharing, British Airways sells flights that are operated by different airlines - mainly Quantas and BMI," he explains. "This flights shouldn't be affected."
While bookings made with a credit card are protected under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act (meaning the card provider is jointly liable for any issues that might arise), this doesn't offer much additional protection as British Airways has already offered refunds on cancelled flights.
People with British Airways flights hoping to make a connecting flight made with a different airline might find they have no way to reclaim their money if, because of the strike action, they miss the second flight. In this situation, claiming under travel insurance bought before 2 November is probably their best course of action.