LONDON: Nearly all British Airways (BA) flights were grounded by its first ever pilots strike on Monday, disrupting the travel plans of about 1,95,000 passengers in a dispute over pay. The action by British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) members forced BA, part of International Airlines Group (IAG) , to cancel 1,700 flights to and from London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports during two days of action in its latest high-profile setback.

Terminal 5 at Heathrow in London, a British Airways hub, was deserted on Monday, according to British media reports, a sign that the airline had prepared for the possibility of a walkout. British Airlines said it had contacted customers two weeks ago to offer a choice of alternative flights on British Airways planes or with different airlines, or full refunds.

BA faces intense competition on short-haul routes from easyJet, Ryanair and other low-cost airlines and has faced a number of operational hiccups in the last few years. “It’s going to punish customers, it’s going to punish our brand, it’s going to punish the rest of the colleagues,” BA chief executive Alex Cruz told BBC TV as IAG shares dropped by as much as 3% in early trading.

British Airways says it has offered pilots an 11.5% pay raise over three years but the union says its members want a bigger share of the company’s profits. The strike is the latest setback for BA, which in August suffered its third major computer failure in little more than two years. It also faces a record $230 million fine under tough new data-protection rules after the theft of data from 500,000 customers from its site last year.

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