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British Airways says almost all UK flights cancelled over pilot strike

Pay dispute sparks travel chaos for tens of thousands of passengers

LONDON: British Airways (BA) yesterday cancelled almost all flights departing from and arriving in Britain, as the airline's first pilots' strike began, sparking travel chaos for tens of thousands of passengers.

The industrial action over pay yesterday and today by members of the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa) trade union follows around nine months of failed talks.

On the first day of the strike, some 145,000 passengers faced cancelled international and domestic flights mainly at London's Gatwick and Heathrow airports.

The carrier is owned by London-listed International Airlines Group (IAG) and operates about 850 flights a day in Britain.

It said it had no option but to cancel nearly all scheduled flights.

"Unfortunately, with no detail from Balpa on which pilots would strike, we had no way of predicting how many would come to work or which aircraft they are qualified to fly, so we had no option but to cancel nearly 100 per cent of our flights," BA said in a statement.

The airline stressed that it remained willing to return to talks but the union - which is seeking a bigger share of company profits - accuses BA of not wanting to negotiate.

"We understand the frustration and disruption Balpa's strike action has caused our customers," BA added.

"After many months of trying to resolve the pay dispute, we are extremely sorry that it has come to this."

BA and its 4,300 pilots have been locked in a long-running pay dispute that could disrupt the travel plans of nearly 300,000 people in all over the two days.

Pilots are also threatening to strike for one more day on Sept 27 - and then possibly again closer to the winter holidays - should the dispute drag on.

REJECT

Balpa has rejected a pay increase of 11.5 per cent over three years that the airline proposed in July.

BA says the offer would see flight captains receive "world-class" pay and benefits of around £200,000 (S$340,000) a year.

The airline pointed out also that two other unions representing 90 per cent of the airlines' workers have accepted the 11.5 per cent raise.

Balpa counters that co-pilots' salaries average around £70,000 - and that of junior ones drop down to just £26,000.

This leaves some in heavy debt since they must first undergo training that the BBC estimates costs around £100,000.

Balpa boss Brian Strutton also apologised for the travel chaos - but defended the historic industrial action and blamed the company for failing to negotiate.

"We are very sorry for all the disruption that's been caused by the industrial action," he told BBC Radio 4.

"I think British Airways took the decision some weeks ago that they would close down the airline operation and it's up to them to do things that way.

"They could have made alternative plans. That's caused a lot of disruption for passengers," Mr Strutton added.

The union had sought a profit-sharing scheme that would apply to all BA employees - but Mr Strutton said BA had "point blank refused" to consider the proposal.

Balpa pointed to a nearly 10-per cent jump in pre-tax profits reported by the parent company IAG last year.

"What the pilots have asked for is to have a share of the success of British Airways," he said.

"We are prepared to negotiate. We are prepared to move on our position, but so far British Airways has said to me: 'We are not going to budge.' And that's the problem." - AFP

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