British Airways Christmas Strike Could Strand Travelers

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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."

Flights to London

Denise Lysette Fink, a New Jersey lawyer heading to London to visit friends and family for the holiday, said she would have never booked with British Airways if she knew this strike was a possibility.

"They don't care about their customers," she said. "I understand that they are trying to get the most leverage for their negotiations I negotiate for a living. I understand that. But I'll never fly with that airline again."

For passengers who decide to find other flights, even those willing to pay top-dollar might have a hard time finding available seats on other airlines.

"It's not like there is a huge amount of seats to dump these people into," said Seaney, who called the possible strike "terrible news" in an "already-beaten down industry" and for "an airline that is already struggling to survive."

British Airways is already expected to post record losses this year. If the strike goes through, analysts estimate the airline will lose up to $49 million a day. During the holidays, the airline normally operates 650 flights and carries 90,000 passengers daily.

One competitor, Virgin Atlantic is capitalizing on the potential strike. The airline announced that it is deploying larger aircraft for flights to Newark, N.J., Boston, Washington, D.C., and Delhi -- airports which can accommodate the larger jets.

But the move might be more good public relations than problem-solving. The switch from Airbus A340-300 to A340-600 on those routes adds 68 extra seats per flight. During the 12 days of the strike, that's about 1,600 extra seats -- not very reassuring, unless you happen to secure one of those seats.

"It is a nightmare for passengers, and you have to feel for them at Christmas time," Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson said in a statement. "Any strike would obviously be extremely damaging to everybody -- the company, employees and most importantly the traveling public."

British Airways, Union Leaders Meet

Seaney notes that British Airways relies more on business travelers than other airlines. He said about 45 percent of its revenue comes from the premium cabins.

"They are the sort of old-time legacy airline," Seaney said.

That means that British Airways has been hit harder than other airlines by the global downturn in business travel thanks to the recession.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown waded into the increasingly acrimonious dispute today, urging the airline and union to come to a deal to ensure travelers "a strike-free and trouble-free Christmas."