British Airways strike: What are passengers' rights if their flight is cancelled?

Buy British Airways – fly Qatar Airways. That’s the prospect for about 5,000 BA passengers for the next 16 days as another cabin-crew strike gets under way. The 1-16 July stoppage is the latest episode in a long-running dispute involving members of the Unite union working for BA’s Mixed Fleet at Heathrow. Thousands of passengers have had their flights cancelled, but the airline says the “vast majority” of its flights will operate – partly thanks to the planes BA is borrowing.

Remind me what the dispute is about?

It was originally about pay. Mixed Fleet was created in 2010, and currently constitutes about one third of BA’s total cabin crew. They are employed on inferior terms to longer-serving staff. Mixed Fleet cabin crew who are members of the Unite union began strike action at the start of the year in a bid to improve what they called “poverty pay“. My understanding is that British Airways and Unite have now reached agreement on pay. The battleground has now moved to what the union says are “punitive sanctions” against 1,400 members who took part in previous strikes, involving the removal of bonus payments and staff travel concessions.

How many cabin crew will strike – and what is British Airways doing in response?

The airline’s plans assume that the same number, around 1,400, will stop work. That’s about one in four of the Mixed Fleet total. BA has also brought in planes. While spare aircraft and crews are difficult to charter in July, because it’s peak season, BA’s part-owner, Qatar Airways, happens to have a lot of them sitting idle. They have been grounded by the geopolitical row in the Gulf, which forbids the Qatari airline flying to a number of neighbours.

The Unite union had objected to the use of these planes, saying that Qatar Airways violated international labour standards. The union also claims: “Qatar Flight Duty Time limitations and Rest requirements are inferior to the UK.” But permission for the deal was granted by the Government with just hours to go before the strike began. They will be deployed on short-haul routes from Heathrow to Munich, Brussels, Zurich and other destinations. British Airways says any passengers who don’t want to fly on Qatar Airways can switch to “real” BA flights or get a full refund. 

How many flights will be affected?

BA says that 99.5 per cent of its schedule will operate – which means that one in 200 flights will be cancelled. I have identified dozens of flights, all of them long-haul, that have been grounded because of the strike. The most numerous cancellations are on the Heathrow-Doha link, with 12 flights axed between now and Thursday, but other flights are affected including round-trips to New York, Abuja and Muscat. Over the next 16 days British Airways would normally expect to carry around 1.8 million passengers – and I estimate that around 10,000 will find their flight is cancelled. Passenger numbers could also be reduced because of reluctance to book on an airline threatened with a strike. 

Flights that do not begin or end at Heathrow, eg those from Gatwick, London City and Stansted, are unaffected.

What are the options if your flight is cancelled?

Passengers are being offered alternative departures, on British Airways or other airlines. They may also choose to cancel with a full refund, to postpone the trip or to reroute.

BA will not pay compensation for cancelled flights: industrial action is one of the relatively few grounds for an airline to refuse compensation due to “extraordinary circumstances”. But if passengers are disrupted as a result of the strike, BA must provide a duty of care: meals, refreshments and if necessary accommodation as appropriate.

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