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British airports strike averted

LONDON, Aug 17 – Air travellers breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday after unions and management reached agreement to avert a strike that could have shut down six British airports on a key holiday weekend this month.

Nine hours of talks ended late Monday with an agreement between the Unite union and airports operator BAA on a new pay offer.

Unite members, including firefighters and security staff, had originally voted by three to one to take action and threatened a "total shutdown" of airports including London Heathrow, the world\’s busiest international passenger hub.

There had been fears the union was planning to target the three-day August 28-30 holiday weekend, one of the busiest periods of the year for air travel.

But Unite\’s national officer Brian Boyd emerged from the talks to say the union was calling off the threat of strikes while workers voted over the next few weeks on a "much improved" offer from management.

"Unite\’s negotiating committee will recommend a much improved offer from (airport operator) BAA," he said in London outside the headquarters of conciliation service ACAS, which helped broker the talks.

"Details of the agreement will be made public once BAA staff have been advised of the improved offer."

Peter Harwood, chief conciliator at ACAS, said details of the new pay deal would likely be disclosed on Tuesday.

The union, whose members agreed to accept a pay freeze amid the economic downturn last year, had described BAA\’s initial pay rise offer of up to 1.5 percent as "measly".

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As well as Heathrow, any action would have affected London Stansted and Southampton in southeast England, and Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen in Scotland.

Following the breakthrough, BAA executive Terry Morgan said the operator was confident that anyone travelling in the next few weeks would not now face disruption.

"We believe that the unions are going to recommend acceptance of our offer to their membership," said Morgan.

"If that\’s the case, then we are very, very confident that any disruption to our airport operations has now been avoided."

Both sides had come out with a deal they were happy with, he said.

"I think it\’s a deal that is a fair reward for our staff, but it\’s also a deal that the company can afford."

British Transport Minister Philip Hammond welcomed the news: "Passengers will be relieved that they are now able to go on holiday without the fear of disruption from strikes."

Only around half of the 6,000 workers balloted by Unite voted, but almost 75 percent who did cast their votes opted for strike action.

Unite had said the airports would be forced to close if strikes went ahead because staff such as firefighters, luggage loaders and security personnel are almost impossible to replace at short notice.

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A fresh strike would have been the latest disruption in a troubled year for air travellers.

European airspace was shut by the Icelandic ash cloud crisis earlier this year and British Airways services have been hit by a series of cabin crew strikes.

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