Two-thirds of British Airways Staff Return to Work at Heathrow

The airline could not say when it would be able to resume flights, leaving tens of thousands of travelers still stranded at the London Airport.


LONDON (AP) -- British Airways said Friday that two-thirds of its striking Heathrow Airport workers had returned to work, but the airline could not say when it would be able to resume flights, leaving tens of thousands of travelers still stranded at the height of the summer tourism season.

The airline said the majority of the 1,000 striking workers returned after the government-backed mediation service ACAS announced talks aimed at resolving the dispute. But more than 300 remained off the job, and BA said flights would be suspended until at least 8 p.m. London time, with disruption continuing for days.

BA canceled all flights to and from Heathrow on Thursday after a wildcat strike among catering staff spread to baggage handlers and other ground crew. Some 70,000 travelers were left stranded.

On Friday, airport 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.''

Incoming flights were diverted to airports as far away as Newcastle in northern England and Glasgow, Scotland. BA implored travelers due to fly from Heathrow on Friday not to head to the airport.

With almost 100 BA aircraft out of position around the world because of the strike, Heathrow management warned that disruption at the world's busiest international airport 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., who was 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.''

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.

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

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

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,'' said BA chief Rod Eddington.

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.

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