Non-flying pickets: BA strikers

British Airways cabin crew staged their first strike in 13 years yesterday, causing disruption for thousands of passengers, with more action planned in coming weeks.

The Unite trade union said early indications were that its 12,000 members were solidly supporting the three-day walkout, called in a dispute over cost cutting.

Picket lines were mounted at airports including Heath­row, which will be the worst affected by the strike. Unite said no buses, which usually transport crew to work, had crossed picket lines yesterday morning. The union also claimed that two of the planes chartered by BA as part of the airline's contingency plans were delayed by technical problems and that more than 100 complaints had been made by passengers about catering. BA made no immediate comment on the claims.

Just under two-thirds of Heathrow's long-haul services are expected to fly this weekend and less than a third of short-haul flights. BA plans to operate all long-haul flights to and from Gatwick plus around half of short-haul flights, while all flights to and from London City airport are expected to fly as scheduled.

BA said it was confident of handling as many as 49,000 passengers yesterday and the same number today, which compares with a figure of around 75,000 for a normal weekend day in March.

Some passengers are due to travel with other carriers on specially chartered planes. BA has arranged with more than 60 other airlines to take BA customers on its flights.

The strike went ahead following the collapse of talks, which ended with Unite and BA blaming each other.

Unite's joint leader, Tony Woodley, accused BA of wanting a "war" with the union and complained that BA chief executive Willie Walsh had tabled a worse offer than one withdrawn last week.

Woodley said he had been set "mission impossible" because of the new offer, which included a four-year pay deal the union said would at best freeze wages until 2014. The union offered a 2.6% pay cut as part of a three-year deal.

Unite also claimed that BA had failed to commit to extending the validity of the current industrial action ballot so that members could vote on any offer from BA. "This failure could have led, in the event of a rejection of BA's proposals by cabin crew, to a third strike ballot in five months, and continued instability for the airline, its customers and the workforce," said a Unite official.

Woodley said: "The disruption that passengers will experience over the next three days could have been spared had BA grasped that you cannot put an offer on the table one day, take it off the next and then come back with a worse one a few days later."