Q&A: British Airways strike

18 January 2010

Holidaymakers are once again facing travel chaos after Unite called another strike ballot among British Airways’ cabin crew. 

A previous 12-day strike – planned for the busy Christmas and New Year period – was called off after the High Court found the balloting process was illegal.

However, Unite – the largest British Airways union - has always said it would pursue industrial action if the ongoing dispute with British Airways was not resolved. It today (18 January) confirmed its intention to hold another ballot, with voting papers likely to be sent to cabin crew this Friday.

This means that any subsequent strike action will probably kick off in early March. “Unite will have to give its members around four to five weeks to react to the ballot and, if a strike is to follow, it must legally give seven days’ notice,” explains Bob Atkinson, travel expert at travelsupermarket.com.

Is the strike likely to go ahead?

The dispute between unions, including Unite, and British Airways is down to new employee contracts introduced back in November and cost cutting measures introduced by the airline.

As well as organising industrial action, Unite is also pursuing a legal case against British Airways. The High Court is due to hear its case on 1 February – the outcome of this could affect future strikes.

“It’s highly unlikely that the changes British Airways made to consumer contracts contain legal mistakes,” says Atkinson. “The question is – if the High Court throws Unite’s case out, how can it justify striking?”

It is also possible that, even if the strike does go ahead, it will be less punitive than the one planned for the Christmas period. The media and public reaction to the industry action was, on the whole, largely negative, and Unite may organise smaller strike action in order to gain support.

For example, it may decide to only strike every other day, or only on flights departing after 12pm. 

Will my travel insurance cover strike action?

Passengers booked to fly with British Airways are advised to check the terms and conditions of their travel insurance policy to see if they have cover as a result of strike action or abandonment of their trip.

You should also be aware that some travel insurers may not provide strike action cover on policies purchased from today – they will argue that consumers knew there was a risk of a strike.

However, check before you buy as some insurers will cover passengers for cancellations until
the date the strike is confirmed.

What are my rights?

British Airways says that, in the event of strike action, is will put its customers' interests first. “We will provide assistance for those crew who wish to work normally and we will explore all options to enable us to operate the best flying programme possible under the circumstances,” it says in a statement.

If strike dates are announced, customers booked to travel during that period will be able to rebook, free of charge and subject to availability, onto other British Airways flights outside of the strike period for up to 12 months from the original date of travel.

If flights are cancelled as a result of strike action, customers will be able to:
Cancel their booking and claim a refund
Rebook onto another British Airways flight within 12 months of the original date of travel
Rebook onto another British Airways flight to/from the nearest alternative airport 

However, British Airways says that all rebooking options will be subject to availability. It will provide further details in the event that a strike is agreed and once specific dates have been announced.

Normal conditions of carriage will apply for any flights that are cancelled outside of the strike period.

British Airways Executive Club members will continue to earn Tier Points and airmiles for flights cancelled due to any strike action.

What can I do?

At this stage, there is not much you can do. However, it’s worth checking whether the contact details you gave British Airways when you booked are still correct, as the airline is likely to contact you directly about your flight if it is cancelled.

You can manage your booking on British Airways website. If you made your booking 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.

Atkinson 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 Qantas and BMI," he explains. "These flights shouldn't be affected."

Read more about code sharing

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 will offer 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 18 January is probably their best course of action.

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