British Airways Christmas Strike Could Strand Travelers

ba strike

A potential strike by British Airways cabin crew members and plans for a simultaneous walkout by staff at two U.K. airports could make this Christmas holiday travel period a nightmare for people crossing the Atlantic to see family and friends.

British Airways and union leaders agreed to meet today for emergency talks to try and avert a proposed 12-day strike that would run through Christmas. The airline is also pursuing an emergency application for a court injunction to prevent the walkout.

As travelers await the results of those talks or an order from the courts, there was even more bad news. Baggage handlers and check-in staff at the U.K.'s Heathrow and Aberdeen airports today announced strikes in tandem with the British Airways work stoppages. The baggage handlers and check-in staff work for SAS Ground Services but are represented by the same union as the British Airways cabin crews, the Unite union.

This means that passengers on Emirates, Turkish and Thai airlines at Heathrow and KLM, Air France, Wideroe and Atlantic at Aberdeen could face delays and cancelations.

Finally, those considering the train alternative were instead hit with the news that British Eurostar train drivers announced today they will walk out on Friday and Saturday. But the operator of the train service between Britain and continental Europe said it was confident it could run a normal service by using replacement drivers from France and Belgium.

The British Airways strike, scheduled to start Monday, could strand more than a million passengers and cost the already-struggling airline more than half-a-billion dollars.

The union and airline are at odds over job cuts, pay and working conditions. British Airways management says the cuts are necessary to get the company through the recession.

If you already have a ticket booked on British Airways, there isn't much that you can do. The airline is required to refund tickets only if flights gets canceled.

Passengers concerned about cancellations who must get overseas can book flights on other airlines, but if the strike is averted then they'll be stuck paying for two tickets. Also, last-minute tickets tend to be significantly more expensive than those purchased weeks in advance.

"You're in limbo basically," said Rick Seaney, CEO of airfare search site and an columnist. "When they do strikes in the U.K., they tend to them in the most significant times, like right before the holidays. They have a sense for the flair and the dynamic. They're maximizing whatever leverage they have."

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Greg McCutcheon and his fiancee have been planning a trip to London over Christmas for nearly a year.

They plan to leave Thursday regardless of the strike, but their return tickets are for Dec. 31, so if the strike happens they could be stranded. McCutcheon has already purchased tickets to the London Symphony Orchestra and a Chelsea football match.

"I'm pretty disappointed in their union -- that they would decide to strike during one of the busiest holidays, that they could be so selfish to ruin others' Christmases," said McCutcheon, a middle school band director in Watauga, Texas. "There has to be a better solution than forcing millions of people to have awful Christmases."

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