British Airways Flights Resume at Heathrow Airport After Strike

LONDON (AP) -- British Airways resumed flights to and from Heathrow Airport Friday night when a strike by ground crews ended - and began what was likely to be a days-long process of getting thousands of stranded passengers to their final destinations.

Though all of the 1,000 striking workers returned to their jobs Friday afternoon, hundreds of flights had been canceled at one of the world's busiest airports during the peak of the summer travel season. The airline 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.

Becky Thornton, a BA spokeswoman, said it would take several days before all the passengers are helped.

Some 70,000 BA passengers were stranded Friday, half at Heathrow and half at other airports hoping to fly to Heathrow, Thornton said. On Thursday, that figure stood at 40,000 passengers, she said.

Airports across the U.S. 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. ''It is getting tiring.''

Thornton said the airline also must get 100 BA aircraft and 1,000 BA flight crew employees that were stranded by the industrial action back where they belong.

''It will take several days to get some stability to our schedule,'' she said in an interview with The Associated Press.

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.

''We are waiting, but we don't know for what,'' said Jimmy Kakoo, among a group of Portuguese Boy Scouts who fashioned a makeshift shelter inside Heathrow's Terminal 1 from luggage trolleys and sleeping bags. ''We are all a little frustrated, but we can't do anything about it so we don't let it bother us.''

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 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.''

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

''People are saying we won't get out 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.''

Police with submachine guns patrolled the airport as usual, but the Metropolitan Police said the strike had led to an escalation of security at Heathrow. A spokeswoman said the force was prepared to send in more officers to keep the peace if passengers became unruly.

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. The company said 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.

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 14 cents to $52.69 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press

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