Court Saves Christmas, Blocks British Airways Strike

More than a million travelers flying British Airways this holiday just got an early Christmas gift from an English court, which ordered an emergency court injunction to stop a 12-day potential strike planned by the airline's cabin crew.

The strike, and plans for parallel walkouts by baggage airport handlers and check-in counter workers, threatened to paralyze travelers during one of the busiest periods of the year.

The High Court backed a claim by British Airways that the ballot of around 13,000 workers by the Unite labor union was illegal because it included members no longer employed by the airline.

The order means that the union had to call off the strike.

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"We are delighted for our customers that the threat of a Christmas strike has been lifted by the court," British Airways said in a statement after the ruling by Justice Laura Cox. "It is a decision that will be welcomed by hundreds of thousands of families in the UK and around the world," the airline added.

The union said the court's order marked a "disgraceful day for democracy" and said that unless an agreement is reached with the airline's management it will call for a new vote. But such voting cannot happen until after Christmas, with a rescheduled strike unlikely before February.

Separate strikes by ground staff at Heathrow and Aberdeen airports and by drivers on the Eurostar high speed trains are still scheduled to begin next week.

The British Airways strike was scheduled to start Monday and could have stranded 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.

British Airways Strike Halted by Court

Passengers with tickets on British Airways didn't have many options and basically were waiting for the court to rule. The airline is required to refund tickets only if flights get canceled. Some passengers were booking tickets on other airlines but most were just sitting back and nervously waiting.

"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."

The strike effort is still likely to leave a bad taste for many travelers who might now think twice about booking on the airline for future trips.

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."

British Airways is expected to post record losses this year. Analysts estimated the airline would have lost up to $49 million a day if the strike had gone through. 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.

Possible Strike 'A Nightmare'

"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."

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.