Tens of thousands still stranded after British Airways labor dispute is resolved
LONDON – It’s going to take days to fix the mess that a one-day strike made for tens of thousands of British Airways passengers.That Friday night prediction by airline officials mirrored the confusion and bleak outlook for a long, unmoving line of stranded passengers at Heathrow Airport, where Sally Hater sat on a white plastic chair.”Nobody from the airline is telling us anything, so we have to rely on rumors,” she said. “People are saying we won’t get out of here until Monday or Tuesday.””My husband drove from Vermont to Boston to pick me up and now he’s also stranded there,” Hater said.The walkout by British Airways workers left some 70,000 BA passengers stranded around the world during the peak summer season. Half of those passengers were at Heathrow and half at other airports, hoping to fly to London.Although the strike by 1,000 ground workers ended Friday afternoon, it was expected to take days for the airline to get all passengers to their final destinations, BA spokeswoman Becky Thornton said.The strike led to hundreds of flights being canceled at one of the world’s busiest airports, and only a trickle were getting out after workers returned to their jobs Friday afternoon. BA hoped to send 32 flights out of Heathrow, half to British or continental European locations, the rest to the Middle East, Asia and the United States.The airline had been forced to cancel some 500 flights to and from Heathrow, its main hub. Incoming flights were diverted to airports as far away as Newcastle in northern England and Glasgow, Scotland.”We face a complex logistical challenge with at least 100 aircraft and 1,000 flying crew out of position,” said BA customer services director Mike Street.Despite the thousands of irate passengers in London, U.S. airports reported few problems, saying most passengers had been informed of the cancellations before arriving at the airport. BA tried to book as many of those customers as possible onto other airlines or reimburse them for buying tickets on other carriers, Thornton said.Still, there was a ripple effect around the world, as passengers due to fly to London found themselves stuck.”We’ve been here for three hours, and no one has said anything about hospitality, or sorry,” said Rick Doehring, due to fly to London from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport en route to Detroit.Hundreds of baggage handlers and other ground staff walked out Thursday in support of workers fired by U.S.-owned catering company Gate Gourmet. Analysts warned that the airline faced losses of tens of millions of dollars.About 1,000 people spent the night on floors and in seating areas at Heathrow airport, BA said, while about 4,000 had been put up in hotels nearby. Incoming flights were diverted to airports as far away as Newcastle in northern England and Glasgow, Scotland.BA chief executive Rod Eddington said the situation was “regrettable in the extreme.””This is not our dispute,” Eddington said. “Our customers must come first and everyone involved in creating this chaotic situation must come to their senses.”But many of the passengers who spent the night on floors and departure lounge benches, and faced hours-long lines to make alternative flight arrangements, blamed the airline.”I’m too polite a lady to say what I think of British Airways,” said Australian Daphne Morley, who was attempting to fly to St. Petersburg, Russia. “Our luggage is somewhere in Neverland. There’s no chance of change of clothing or anything.”Qantas, Finnair, British Mediterranean and Sri Lankan Airlines, which use BA ground staff, also canceled their flights from Heathrow on Friday.Police with submachine guns patrolled the airport as usual, but the Metropolitan Police said the strike had led to an increase in security at Heathrow.Gate Gourmet provides onboard meals for British Airways flights. The workers’ union said the company had fired 800 workers on Wednesday after an unofficial strike.Gate Gourmet Chairman David Siegel said that after repeated warnings and pleadings for employees to return to work, 667 workers had to be dismissed because of the unofficial strike.”It’s disturbing that the union would repeatedly use illegal action in this manner. It’s reckless behavior to do that,” he said, adding that unions should honor their contracts and work in the best legal interest of employees.BA baggage handlers and loaders represented by the same union as catering staff – the Transport and General Workers Union – stopped work in sympathy with their colleagues.Some Gate Gourmet staff were astounded at the scale of disruption.”I didn’t expect the BA staff to join us, but we are very happy about it,” said Gary Mullins, a loader for the company.”We don’t wish to cause them any more (aggravation) than we have to,” he said of the passengers. “But it’s something that has to be done.”Gate Gourmet, which is undertaking restructuring amid financial losses, said it was trying to resolve the dispute. The company, owned by U.S.-based Texas Pacific Group, reported a loss of 23 million pounds ($41.25 million) in the last fiscal year, and was expecting a 25 million pound ($44.84 million) loss for the current year.This is the third consecutive year that BA has suffered a disruption at the height of the summer holiday season. Last August, thousands of disgruntled vacationers were stranded at Heathrow after the airline canceled scores of flights because of staff shortages and technical hitches.In July 2003, an unofficial walkout by several hundred check-in staff disrupted thousands of passengers and cost BA tens of millions of dollars.Henk Potts, an analyst at Barclays Stockbrokers said the latest dispute could cost the airline 10 million pounds ($18 million) a day.In its last fiscal year, which ended in March, British Airways PLC earned 251 million pounds, up from 130 million pounds in the previous year. Full-year revenue rose 3.3 percent to 7.8 billion pounds.BA’s U.S. shares fell 16 cents to $52.67 on the New York Stock Exchange.
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