LONDON, Mar 27 – British Airways (BA) cabin crew launched a four-day strike Saturday, the second wave of action in a week as part of a bitter, long-running dispute over pay and conditions.
BA has pledged that more than three-quarters of its passengers — or over 180,000 out of 240,000 — will still be able to travel as planned during the walkout, which follows a similar three-day action last week.
A further 18 percent of customers have been rebooked with other airlines, or have switched their travel dates to avoid the strike period, it said.
BA chief executive Willie Walsh, who insists the company could fold in a decade unless the changes he wants take place, said the "vast majority" of staff were "pulling together to serve our customers and keep our flag flying".
"At the same time, I feel really sorry for those customers whose plans have been ruined by the Unite union\’s completely unjustified action," he added.
Amid growing hostility between BA and Unite, the trade union which represents BA\’s 12,000 cabin crew, the union claimed the cost to the airline would be 100 million pounds (111 million euros, 149 million dollars).
By contrast, BA said Monday that a three-day walkout from last Saturday would cost seven million pounds a day and that an assessment of the cost of the full seven-day action could only be made after it was finished.
Talks between the two sides broke down eight days ago, on the eve of the first strikes.
In a letter to The Guardian newspaper Friday, 116 industrial relations experts from universities across Britain accused Walsh of trying to break Unite.
They said he had withdrawn an offer which could have prevented the strikes and noted he had used other airlines — including budget carrier Ryanair — to help carry passengers and undermine the effectiveness of the action.
BA has also axed highly-prized travel discounts for striking workers.
"It is clear to us that the actions of the chief executive of British Airways… are explicable only by the desire to break the union which represents the cabin crew," the academics\’ letter read.
BA denies this, and in an interview with the Daily Telegraph Saturday, Walsh said the reforms he wanted were vital to the company\’s survival.
"We are trying to transform the way we operate because the industry is changing and the economic conditions have changed so radically that we\’ve got to change," Walsh said.
"We\’re doing this to make sure BA still exists in 10 years. If we don\’t do this, BA won\’t exist in 10 years."
The airline is hoping to fly a full schedule from London\’s City and Gatwick airports during the strikes and at Heathrow will operate 70 percent of long-haul and 55 percent of short-haul flights.
A BA spokesman said around 0900 GMT Saturday that cabin crew were reporting as normal at Gatwick and there were enough staff at Heathrow to operate their published schedule.
However, Heathrow passenger John Cawley, 54, from Liverpool in northwest England, said he would never fly with BA again.
He was due to fly to the United States with his family from Heathrow but their internal flight was cancelled and they had to spend hundreds of pounds on a hire car to drive to the airport instead.
"We\’ll never use BA again, we wouldn\’t want to go through all this again," he said.
BA, which is attempting to merge with Spanish rival Iberia, said last month it expected to notch up a record loss in the current financial year due to weak demand for air travel.
In December, it won a legal battle to prevent a 12-day walkout by cabin crew over Christmas and New Year after a judge ruled that a ballot of staff by Unite was invalid.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has condemned the strike but, just weeks before a general election, faces accusations of a weak response from the main opposition Conservatives because Unite is a major donor to his Labour party.