Tens of thousands of air passengers face New Year travel misery after union bosses today called a series of strikes at some of the UK’s busiest airports in a row over pensions.
Firefighters, security, clerical and maintenance staff at seven airports owned by BAA, including Heathrow, Gatwick and Glasgow, will walk out at 6am on January 7 for 24 hours, at 6am on January 14 for 24 hours and at 6am on January 17 for 48 hours in protest at the closure of the final salary pension scheme for new workers.
Unite predicted that the action would close the airports, leading to the cancellation of hundreds of flights and wrecking travel plans.
Virgin Atlantic said it planned to run most of its flights during two proposed 48-hour strikes in the new year by cabin crew in a separate row over pay. The airline said just three return flights will be cancelled on January 9, 10, 16 and 17, when members of Unite walk out, although the union disputed the disruption could be this limited.
Industrial unrest broke out in other industries today when the Rail, Maritime and Transport union announced strikes next month by hundreds of Wilts and Dorset bus drivers over hours and said 600 First Great Western rail guards and drivers will be balloted for action following the breakdown of industrial relations.
Meanwhile a strike by 100 postal workers in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent in support of 12 colleagues suspended since September has been extended by two weeks until January 16, the Communication Workers Union announced.
Unite national officer Brendan Gold said the airport workers had sent a "strong message" to BAA that they did not accept the closure of the firm’s final salary pension scheme to new employees by voting by 1,946 to 1,108 in favour of action.
He admitted the strikes would cause a "huge amount of disruption" to travellers but he laid the blame on BAA.
"I am astonished and amazed at the way BAA has refused to tackle this issue. BAA has just posted profits of over £500 million and the Spanish owners Ferrovial have seen their profits rise by nearly 60%," he said.
"It is clear that our members’ pension scheme is financially sound and should be left alone.
"After a series of fruitless meetings with the company our members have been left with no option but to resort to industrial action to defend their interests."
Mr Gold said workers had lost trust in BAA and feared that not allowing new employees to join the final salary pension scheme after December 1 was the first step in axing the entire scheme.
Mr Gold said union officials were conscious of the importance of festive travel arrangements already made by families across the country which is why the strikes would not be held over Christmas.
BAA urged Unite to continue discussions aimed at averting the airport strikes, which are set to hit Heathrow, Gatwick, Glasgow, Stansted, Southampton, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
A spokesman said: "We continue to believe that industrial action is unnecessary, as none of our existing employees will be affected by the changes to our pension arrangements.
"However, we do recognise that there are important concerns and these will continue to be addressed through discussions with the unions and staff. We would ask for the understanding of passengers as we work hard to resolve this issue."
Mr Gold said unions were prepared to sit down with BAA to discuss pension schemes, but only after the company reverses its decision to close it to new entrants.
He suggested there could be possible compromises over contribution and accrual rates, but he stressed that the closure decision must first be reversed.
"There are huge areas of potential compromise," he said.
Frances Tuke, of travel association Abta, said: "Although mid-January is one of the quietest periods of the year for holidays, the major airports are still pretty busy and plenty of people are due to fly off abroad.
"We will be working with airlines and with the Federation of Tour Operators to ensure that we can get people away."
The British Chambers of Commerce warned that the strikes will cost the UK millions of pounds at a time when the country needed to "pull together" to stave off an economic downturn.
David Frost, director general, said: "The reputation of our airports in the eyes of international travellers will be further diminished when they get to the UK and are met by chaos.
"Unite must consider the long-term implications of this decision."