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British Airways cabin crew strike spurs chaos

LONDON - The start of a three-day strike by cabin crew at British Airways spurred chaos and passenger angst yesterday as union members promised more airline and rail walkouts in the coming weeks as Britain prepares for a hotly contested general election.

British Airways' cabin crew are disputing a pay freeze and changes to working conditions. Their Unite union also says the airline didn't inform it of cost-cutting plans.

British Airways said it would handle as many as 49,000 passengers this weekend. That compares with the average 75,000 for a normal weekend day in March. At its Heathrow base, more than 60 percent of long-haul flights were operating, but only 30 percent of short-haul. At Gatwick, all long-haul flights and more than half short-haul flights were running as normal, as were flights from London City airport, including flights to New York.

The public backlash is bad news for Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party, which relies heavily on funding from the country's labor unions, and a gift for the main opposition Conservative Party, which is leading opinion polls ahead of a general election due within weeks.

The Conservatives' campaign is being aided by the increasing likelihood of further strikes in the run-up to the April 2-5 Easter break and a national election that must be held by June 3, though a May 6 date is more likely since local elections are already scheduled for that day.

The Rail Maritime and Transport union is expected to announce walkout dates next week after railway signal workers and maintenance staff voted in favor of a strike, while the airline workers are due to go out again March 27-30.

The acrimonious dispute with its workers will be financially crippling for British Airways - analysts forecasting it could cost the airline more than the $95 million that chief executive Willie Walsh is trying to save through the changes to workers' pay and conditions.

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