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Chaos as BA flights grounded

Chaos as BA flights grounded

Mark Milner and Mark Honigsbaum

Friday August 12, 2005

The Guardian

Thousands of passengers, many of them holidaymakers, saw their travel plans thrown into chaos yesterday after a walkout by British Airways baggage handlers and loading staff at Heathrow.

Five other companies - Sri Lankan Airlines, Finnair, GB Airlines, British Mediterranean Airlines and Qantas - suffered delays because they are serviced by BA ground staff. The action came at one of the busiest times of the year with BA running 550 flights a day in or out of Heathrow.

About 1,000 baggage handlers and loaders took unofficial action in support of workers at catering company Gate Gourmet who were sacked in a row over working practices. Terminals 1 and 4, those most used by BA, were the worst hit.

BA was forced to ground more than 100 short and long haul flights while a number of inbound flights were diverted to other airports. Thousands of passengers were stranded overseas by the chaos, which looks set to continue today. The airline said last night it had cancelled all flights into and out of Heathrow until at least 6pm tonight, affecting up to 70,000 passengers.The row at Gate Gourmet blew up on Wednesday after more than 650 workers were sacked. Gate Gourmet, which is US-owned, said it had taken the decision in response to unofficial strike action.

The Transport and General Workers' Union, which represents many of the Gate Gourmet staff, accuses the company of acting unilaterally in cutting wages and changing conditions.

Gate Gourmet provides around 80,000 meals a day for BA and the dispute had initially meant flights leaving but without on-board food.

Last night the BA chief executive Sir Rod Eddington appealed to both sides to reach a solution. "We have become embroiled in an issue which is not a dispute with British Airways and disrupted thousands of people who were about to take their hard-earned summer holidays."

BA was writing to the TGWU asking the union to repudiate the unofficial action and said the two sides should hold talks aimed at ending the dispute.

The issue hangs in the balance with the union demanding reinstatement of its members.

The company said it remained committed to mediation and to trying to get an agreement with the TGWU.

Sir Rod added: "This unprecedented move is a result of the crippling operational impact of unofficial industrial action by staff from the Transport and General Workers' Union.

"Because we have not had sufficient airport staff to operate flights into or out of Heathrow, nearly 100 of our aircraft and 1,000 pilots and cabin crew are in the wrong places around the world and we simply cannot mount a robust operation any earlier.

"I would like to apologise unreservedly to our customers. It is a huge disappointment to us that we have become embroiled in someone else's dispute.

"I have urged the Transport and General Workers' Union and Gate Gourmet managers to resolve this dispute and end this misery for our customers."

At Heathrow there were scenes of quiet desperation increasingly mixed with irritation. As BA announced that no more people would be allowed into the departure lounge for health and safety reasons, temperatures began to soar.

"I'm pretty fed up if truth be told," said David Ketteridge, 72, from Wiltshire, who had been hoping to board a flight to Copenhagen with his wife Patricia. "I only learned my flight had been cancelled when I got to the airport three-quarters of an hour ago. These people in yellow jackets don't seem to know much more than we do - many of them aren't even regular BA staff but volunteers from head office."

BA said that it would re-book passengers whose flights had been cancelled or give them a refund.

"We are trying to find accommodation for people who don't have accommodation in the area."

The airline said it would review today's schedules and advised customers to check with BA before leaving home.

Despite posting first quarter pre-tax profits of £124m, the airline was named among Europe's worst-performing scheduled airlines for punctuality and baggage delivery according to figures released by the Association of European Airlines earlier this month.

Holidaymakers scheduled to travel over the weekend were advised to contact reservations on 0800 727 800 to make alternative bookings or seek refunds.