Unite consents to BAA peace talks

Potential BAA strikers have said they'll try to thrash out a deal. Can our holidays be saved?

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Beset by bankruptcies and strikes, things currently don’t look bright for the future of the British travel industry – but there may be a glimmer of hope. BAA workers, who yesterday voted in favour of industrial action which could see some of the country’s biggest airports, including Heathrow and Stansted, close just in time for the August bank holiday, have consented to peace talks. The Unite union (the same funsters who are behind British Airways cabin crew’s epic industrial action) will sit down with conciliation service ACAS today to attempt to come to an agreement. But given ACAS’ recent past – those BA foibles still haven’t been resolved – the chances of a deal look slim. Probably best just to put those flip-flops back in the wardrobe.

The dispute is over a pay offer worth 1.5% that Spanish-owned BAA made to employees. But Unite has condemned the offer as ‘measly’, demanding a bigger rise because its members accepted a pay freeze last year. It would be the sixth strike of the year for Unite.

Because those taking part include fire fighters and security staff, it means the airports will have to close. So while the main casualty of the BA strikes was the airline itself (it still managed to fly at 80% capacity, and most would-be afflicted passengers simply booked with other airlines instead), if this one goes ahead, it’s going to be travellers who suffer. Aviation safety rules mean even if some employees came to work, it’s against the law to close just a part of the airport – it’s all or nothing.

The Government has maintained that it’s not going to get involved, but that hasn’t stopped David Cameron and transport minister Norman Baker both sticking their oars in. Baker spent his time on Radio 4 accusing Unite of ‘alienating’ the public while Cameron said the union was using ‘knee-jerk 1970s’ tactics that would cause ‘nothing but harm’. He’s understandably annoyed: closing the majority of the UK’s main airports won’t exactly support the Coalition’s assertion that Britain is ‘open for business’…

The news is going to come as another blow to BAA, which has suffered over the course of the recession. Not only did it lose £822m last year and another £126m in the first three months of this year (thanks in part to the ash cloud), but a ruling by the Competition Commission in 2008 forced it to sell off some of its largest airports, including Gatwick. (A decision passengers will no doubt be very grateful for, considering it may well be the only major airport left open over the bank holiday).

The only hope left for BAA now is a sit-down with the ACAS conciliation service, which are due to take place on Friday. Let’s hope things go more smoothly than during the BA talks, which saw Unite leader Derek Simpson tweeting his way through a crucial meeting. We don’t hold much hope, though: after all – once a twit, always a…

In today's bulletin:
Unite consents to BAA peace talks
Barclays rebels against lending targets
Editor's blog: Two-speed Europe gets into gear
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