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Thousands of BA flights canceled as crew on strike

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[March 20, 2010]  LONDON (AP) -- British Airways canceled more than 1,000 flights after its cabin crew launched a three-day strike Saturday, wreaking havoc on the plans of tens of thousands of passengers just before the busy spring holiday season.

HardwareHoping to keep as many passengers happy as possible, BA scrambled to rebook some on other services, chartered planes from rival airlines and drafted in volunteer crew. But it still had to scrap more than half of its 1,950 scheduled flights over the period.

Chief Executive Willie Walsh issued a direct apology via YouTube for the walkout, the airline's first in almost 15 years, saying it was a "terrible day for BA."

The strike - backed by some unions in the United States, Germany and Spain - also risked harm to Britain's Labour government before a tough general election expected before June.

On Saturday morning at BA's London Heathrow hub, the cavernous Terminal 5 was nearly deserted after some passengers had flown out early to avoid the strike or simply stayed away altogether. But delays were beginning to mount.

One man trying to get home to Sweden said he was already looking at a four-hour delay.

"Our flight from Dallas arrived two hours late, and now we're waiting to go to Stockholm - that flight is two hours late as well," said Bjorn Barka, a high school principal.

Michael Clements, a security director for a California-based company, was able to check in for his business trip to Amsterdam but was told it would be an hour before he could check in his heavy luggage. "Not enough people," he said with a shrug.

The Eurostar train service between London and continental Europe and Virgin's rail services between London and Scotland were expected to be busy as passengers sought alternate routes.

BA also warned that the disruption would likely last several days beyond the three-day strike, because of a knock-on effect on flights that would carry through to the end of a second strike planned for March 27-30.

"We're in limbo land," said Susan Danby, a school worker from the northern English city of Hull. She is due to fly March 29 to Las Vegas with friends to celebrate their 50th birthdays. "This is our dream trip, we booked it last August and we've been planning it for years."

"We all want more money and better conditions, but people shouldn't ruin other people's holidays," Danby said.

As protesters were readying picket lines Saturday outside London's Heathrow international airport, analysts estimated BA has already lost more than 25 million pounds (more than $37 million) because of canceled tickets and contingency costs.

The two planned strikes combined could cost the airline more than the 63 million pounds ($95 million) that Walsh is trying to save through the disputed changes to workers' pay and conditions.

BA's pilots are not part of the strike, after their union resolved a separate dispute over pay with the airline.

U.S., German and Spanish unions have given some support for Unite's action, but stopped short of pledges for coordinated activity that would disrupt BA's ability to refuel and service the planes it is operating during the walkout.

The U.S. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents 40,000 aviation industry workers, urged travelers to find alternatives and said it was keeping its options "open." The U.S. Association of Professional Flight Attendants also expressed support for BA.

Aside from hurting BA financially, the strike is also an unwelcome event for Britain's governing Labour Party before the upcoming national elections.

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Prime Minister Gordon Brown irritated Unite, a major political donor, by calling the union "deplorable" and saying as late as Friday night that it should call off the strike.

Britain faces even more possible travel chaos in the run-up to the April 2-5 Easter break, as railway signal workers voted last week to join rail maintenance workers in a strike. The Rail Maritime and Transport union has not called dates for the walkout, but refused to rule out the long Easter weekend.

And over this weekend, engineering works on the London Underground were forcing closures between central London and Heathrow, though the Heathrow Express train service was operating as normal.

Opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron criticized the stranglehold that unions such as Unite have over the Labour Party.

"Once again, under Gordon Brown the vested interests triumph and the people lose out," Cameron said Saturday. "This threatens the future of one of Britain's greatest companies along with thousands of jobs."

BA said it would handle as many as 49,000 passengers on both Saturday and Sunday. That compares with the average 75,000 for a normal weekend day in March.

At its Heathrow base, more than 60 percent of long-haul flights will operate, but only 30 percent of short-haul. At Gatwick, all long-haul flights and more than half short-haul flights will run as normal.

Any passengers with canceled flights from Saturday through the end of the second planned strike on March 30 will be allowed to rebook on another BA flight within 355 days at no extra charge, but no refunds were being offered, the airline said.

Walsh said Friday it was "deeply regrettable" that the union rejected the airline's proposals. BA says the disputed changes are critical to the airline's survival.

The airline on Friday offered a compromise on a proposed pay freeze this year, offering a 3 percent rise next year and the year after and then an inflation-linked increase in 2013/14 capped at 4 percent.

Unite joint general secretary Tony Woodley, who has warned it will schedule more strikes for after the Easter break if the dispute is not resolved, said BA "ultimately wants to go to war with this union."

Unite argues it was not properly consulted on the changes, which also include a switch to part-time work for 3,000 staff and a reduction in cabin crew sizes from 15 to 14 on long-haul flights from Heathrow.



Associated Press Writer Gregory Katz contributed to this story.

[Associated Press; By JANE WARDELL]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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