LONDON - British Airways is training strike-breaking cabin crew on trial flights with their colleagues standing in for passengers, as the airline prepares for a threatened walkout this month.

Special trips from London-Heathrow to Cardiff and Glasgow are being used to allow replacement crews to practise in the air.

Cabin crew are normally trained on scheduled services with paying customers but, given the limited time available, the emergency crews are using role-playing colleagues.

Friends of the Earth described BA's decision to put on the extra flights as shocking. BA said: "It is an opportunity for the volunteer crew to experience a flight and how to act as a team."

Routine trips to BA's Cardiff and Glasgow engineering bases for aircraft maintenance are doubling up as training flights, but the airline is also running journeys solely for training purposes.

"There will be passengers on board but they will be using role-playing scenarios," the airline said.

In a drive to recruit cabin crew from its 25,000-strong ground staff, BA has told staff with no flying experience they could be in the air after 21 days of instruction at its Heathrow crew school.

The training is taking place despite continuing talks between BA and the Unite trade union to resolve a dispute over staffing cuts on flights.

The assistant general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, warned that a 416km round trip to the Welsh capital was no substitute for dealing with the type of emergencies that could occur on long-haul flights.

He said: "Short-hop stunts are no preparation for long-haul emergencies, and passengers understand that. The only BA brand worth preserving is one staffed by the skilled and dedicated professional cabin crew that management have been harassing."

BA said all volunteer cabin crew would be trained to meet CAA safety standards. The airline declined to reveal how many volunteers it had assembled before strikes that could begin as soon as next week.

Unite claims that the airline can train no more than a few hundred staff - barely enough to operate a few routes for an airline that operates 650 flights a day with 12,000 cabin crew.

Unite has held back from setting strike dates as it awaits the outcome of peace talks, but it has secured a mandate for a walkout after 81 per cent of cabin crew backed action - with March 22 the last possible date that industrial action can begin.

Richard Dyer, transport expert from Friends of the Earth, said: "This is shocking news. Flying is one of the most polluting ways to travel.

"Using ghost flights means the climate footprint of these trainees will be enormous. British Airways has once again shown it does not take its environmental responsibilities seriously."