Branson makes personal appeal to strike threat pilots

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A personal appeal from Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Sir Richard Branson to pilots who are threatening strike action has received a cool response from their union representatives.

The British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa) announced on 21 June that 97% of those voting in a strike ballot had cast their votes in favour of strike action in pursuit of a pay claim. Balpa said its members at Virgin Atlantic had endured a pay freeze since 2008 and the carrier's pay proposals for the next three years would be below the rate of inflation.

The union is due to announce dates for its industrial action on 28 June. Balpa represents some 85% of Virgin Atlantic's 750 pilots.

In an open letter to the pilots, Branson said he was "extremely sad" at the strike threat, which could leave "an indelible scar" on the airline.

"The balancing act our chief operating officer and board have is that if we go further for one sector of the workforce, especially in these difficult times for everybody, we have to do the same for all sectors. And from looking at the figures it will mean asking the public to pay higher fares and in this difficult economic climate, we simply cannot do that at this time.

"The management have told me they are happy to share up to date corporate accounts with your union so they can understand the financial context from where the offer has been made.

"I have looked at the details of your offer and believe it is fair. It is one of the best in the industry, along with many other commitments that offer real value to you."

He urged further talks between the two sides but declined a Balpa request that he become personally involved in negotiations. To do so, he said, "would only cause more publicity, which would further damage the airline and I am not best placed to deal with the details of the negotiation". Branson has not been involved with management of the airline for some years.

However, he said: "I would be happy to have a private meeting with as many pilots that are available to answer your questions about the future of the airline."

In a postcript to his open letter, he added: "Having spent the last few days reflecting deeply on this issue I believe that both management and union need to urgently work together on modernising both their relationship and communications."

Balpa responded that there had been "endless meetings" since November 2010 over the pay dispute. "The pilots think the offer is extremely unfair and that Virgin is totally able to pay more." He expected a response to Branson's offer of a private meeting shortly.