More than 2,000 British Airways cabin crew based at Heathrow could go on strike over Christmas after voting overwhelmingly in favour of walkouts in a dispute over pay.
Cabin crew in BA’s mixed fleet unit – who represent about 15% of stewards at the airline – voted to strike after rejecting a 2% pay offer on what the Unite union has described as “poverty pay” levels. BA accused Unite of creating uncertainty for passengers over the festive season and said it would attempt to resolve the dispute without causing disruption.
Union representatives will meet over the next two days to decide what action to take, with a strike possible at any date from 21 December.
Unite balloted about 2,500 staff at Heathrow, with a 79% vote to strike on a 60% turnout. All of BA’s new flight crew members are recruited into the mixed fleet branch, which was set up in 2010 on lower pay and conditions than existing crew. The mixed fleet group operates on long-haul and short-haul flights from Britain’s biggest airport.
Average pay, including allowances, is just £16,000 a year for cabin crew, according to the union, although BA said crew would normally make at least £21,000 a year with bonuses. Basic salary is £12,000 a year – a figure that has led some to resort to moonlighting in other jobs or sleeping in their cars between shifts to survive, the union said.
The mixed fleet considered a strike in 2014, with discontent stoked by the differential in pay between new recruits and company bosses. Willie Walsh, the chief executive of BA’s parent company, IAG, earned £6.5m in 2015. The airline group is forecasting annual profits of €2.5bn (£2.3bn), largely driven by BA.
Unite’s regional officer Matt Smith said the BA cabin crew were “at breaking point”. He added: “Mixed fleet crew earn just over the minimum wage and below the national average. Significant numbers of crew are taking on second jobs, many go to work unfit to fly because they can’t afford to be sick. British Airways bosses need to wake up to the anger and the injustice here.”
Smith said low pay was not just indefensible but a safety issue for aviation. “Inexperience, fatigue, and the fact that BA recently cut the length of crew training courses means Unite is genuinely concerned about the potential repercussions.”
BA said the airline had made an offer that would lead to basic pay and hourly duty rates increasing by a minimum of 7%.
A spokesperson for the airline said: “We are extremely disappointed that the union is creating uncertainty for our customers. Mixed fleet Unite represents about 15% of our cabin crew.
“We remain focused on resolving this issue as quickly as possible without any disruption to customers. We have proposed a fair and reasonable pay increase to mixed fleet cabin crew, which is in line with that accepted by other British Airways colleagues and which will ensure their reward levels remain in line with cabin crew at our airline competitors.”
Smith said: “We urge British Airways to avoid this dispute and do the right thing by both the frontline staff and the travelling public, by engaging with Unite to negotiate a genuinely meaningful way forward.”
The airline was the site of Britain’s most prolonged and bitter strikes of recent years, when cabin crew walked out for 22 days between 2010 and 2011, a dispute that cost the airline about £150m.
BA rival Virgin Atlantic may also see flights affected over Christmas and the New Year. The PPU, a new union that represents around 70% of Virgin’s pilots, is seeking recognition within the company and has balloted members after the collapse of talks. Pilots have been asked to take industrial action short of a strike over the issue of union recognition. The ballot closes on Friday.