70,000 Stranded at London's Heathrow Airport Over Labor Spat

LONDON (AP) -- At least 70,000 travelers were left stranded Friday as British Airways canceled all flights to and from Heathrow Airport after catering staff, baggage handlers and other ground crew walked off the job in wildcat strikes at the height of the summer tourism season.

Staff handed out food and water to hundreds of tired and frustrated passengers, many of whom had spent the night on benches and floors at the world's busiest international airport. Travelers stood in long, slow-moving lines in an attempt to get on alternate flights.

''We're trying to get on any flight to Germany,'' said Helge Kreckel from Frankfurt. ''We don't care where or which airline, just any flight. Then we can take the train to Frankfurt. We're not leaving this line until we get it.''

British Airways said flights would be suspended until at least 8 p.m. London time, as the government-backed mediation service ACAS announced it would oversee talks in a bid to resolve the dispute.

With almost 100 BA aircraft out of position around the world because of the strike, Heathrow management warned that disruption would last for days.

''People are saying we won't get out of here until Monday or Tuesday,'' said Sally Hater, a resident of Cambridge, Vt., trying to get a flight to Boston. ''We had to wait four hours last night just to get hotel accommodation. They gave us phone numbers, but you can't reach them. They're useless.''

Around 35 flights throughout the United States and Canada were canceled Thursday night, according to British Airways spokesman John Lampl. BA flights to Gatwick and Manchester were not affected. Lampl said the airline attempted to place passengers on other airlines to London and other destinations that typically include a London layover. Passengers who could not be accommodated were either sent home or put up in hotel rooms and given meal vouchers, he said.

Flight cancelations started Thursday after baggage handlers and other ground staff walked out in support of employees who were fired by the airline's caterer after going on strike.

A union representing staff at Gate Gourmet, which provides onboard meals for British Airways flights, said the company had fired 800 workers on Wednesday after an unofficial strike. The company said only 667 workers had been dismissed.

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.

Gate Gourmet said it was trying to resolve the dispute.

The strike led BA to cancel 250 flights to and from Heathrow, its main hub. Arriving flights were diverted to airports as far away as Newcastle in northern England and Glasgow, Scotland. The airline implored travelers due to fly from Heathrow on Friday not to head to the airport.

About 1,000 people spent the night on floors and in seating areas at the airport, BA spokesman Tony Cane said. He said BA had been able to put up about 4,000 others in hotels.

Qantas, Finnair, British Mediterranean and Sri Lankan Airlines, which use BA ground staff, also canceled their flights from Heathrow on Friday.

Other airlines, including Ireland's Aer Lingus, said they were taking overflow passengers from BA on their flights.

British Airways Chief Executive Rod Eddington said that nearly 100 aircraft and 1,000 pilots and cabin crew were left ''in the wrong places around the world'' because of the dispute. Heathrow's managing director, Mick Temple, said there would be ''significant disruption'' for several days to BA flights.

''It is a huge disappointment to us that we have become embroiled in someone else's dispute,'' Eddington said.

But some travelers blamed BA, saying the airline did not have enough counter staff to deal with the huge backlog of passengers and complaining that a telephone information number was constantly busy.

''The way BA are treating people is disgusting,'' said Bill Holmes, 64, waiting for a flight to Boston. ''We're done with this place. Some way to run a business.''

''I'm too polite a lady to say what I think of British Airways,'' said Daphne Morley, a resident of Melbourne, Australia, attempting to fly to St. Petersburg, Russia. ''Our luggage is somewhere in Neverland. There's no chance of change of clothing or anything.''

Gate Gourmet, which is owned by the Fort Worth, Texas, buyout firm Texas Pacific Group, reported a loss of $41.25 million last financial year, and was expecting a $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.

In its last financial year, which ended in March, British Airways PLC earned 251 million pounds ($467.31 million), up from 130 million pounds in the previous year. Full-year revenue rose 3.3 percent to 7.8 billion pounds ($14.49 billion).

U.S. shares of the airline fell 43 cents to $52.40 in early trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press

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