Castaways Fill Tents, Terminal at Heathrow

Heathrow Airport in London overflows with British Airways passengers stranded by a sympathy strike that impacted at least 70,000 worldwide.
Heathrow Airport in London overflows with British Airways passengers stranded by a sympathy strike that impacted at least 70,000 worldwide. (By Kirsty Wigglesworth -- Associated Press)
By Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 13, 2005

LONDON, Aug. 12 -- Roland DaSilva was supposed to be on vacation in Zimbabwe, but instead he was standing outside Heathrow Airport's Terminal 4 Friday evening, one of tens of thousands of travelers stranded because of a labor dispute that started with an American caterer and ended up crippling operations at one of the world's busiest airports.

The labor dispute began Wednesday over the firing of 650 employees of Gate Gourmet, a catering firm owned by a company based in Reston, Va., that provides in-flight meals to British Airways. Nearly 1,000 British Airways baggage handlers, counter agents and other employees represented by the same union walked out in sympathy on Thursday.

The result was near-paralysis of Britain's flagship carrier at its global hub. More than 640 British Airways flights had been cancelled through Friday evening, disrupting the travel plans of an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 passengers, according to British Airways officials who said that along with those stranded in Heathrow, there were countless more waiting for planes that did not show up at airports around the world, from Dulles to Tokyo.

The situation appeared to improve Friday evening when the striking British Airways employees returned to work as negotiations began between Gate Gourmet and the Transport and General Workers Union, which represents all the affected workers. The union and the company issued statements blaming each other for the disruptions, which came after the two sides had been negotiating for months over a new contract.

Jay Merritt, a British Airways spokesman at Heathrow, said the strike was costing the airline at least $18 million a day. He and others noted that the strike hit at the pinnacle of the British and European summer vacation season, and many of the stranded travelers were families with children.

"There are two ways to look at this," said DaSilva, 32, a management consultant from Madrid who was still in the clothes he was wearing when he left Spain 36 hours earlier. "You can be filled with anxiety and pain, or you can laugh at it." He wasn't laughing.

DaSilva's case was typical. He landed Thursday afternoon and spent four and a half hours stuck in the plane on the tarmac. With his connecting flight canceled, he slept in an airport chair Thursday night and waited all day Friday in a parking lot where white tents had been pitched for exhausted travelers from every corner of the world. "I just know it is going to take days to get out of here."

Merritt said the airline expected 31 regularly scheduled flights to take off Friday night carrying previously ticketed passengers. He said that on those flights, only water, tea and coffee would be served, even on trips as long as to Australia, because while the baggage handlers had returned to work, those with the catering company had not. He said the labor dispute, while now in negotiations, was not over. "We have a long way to go," he added.

Even as some flights were scheduled to begin taking off, that was not expected to reduce the vast backlog of thousands of passengers stuck at the airport or in nearby hotels for a second night. And airline officials said the mess -- which has left at least 100 planes, 1,000 crew members and hundreds of thousands of pieces of baggage in the wrong place -- would take several days to fully straighten out.

Gate Gourmet officials said their company has been under the same "intense pressure to reduce costs" felt by the airline industry generally, and that its British operation faced a loss of $45 million this year without restructuring contracts with its workers, including 2,000 at Heathrow.

Company officials said the union was refusing to give up "outdated" and costly labor practices. The company said the workers fired on Wednesday had walked off the job to protest the arrival of 130 seasonal workers hired every year for the peak of summer. When the regular employees did not come back after two hours, they were fired, the company said.

The union's statement said the company had not notified the union about the seasonal workers. When workers walked off the job to meet with union officials to discuss the situation, they were fired with only a few minutes' notice, the union said. It accused the company of planning the situation in advance to provide an excuse for firing the 650 workers.

"This is irresponsible U.S.-style union bashing which had no place in UK industrial relations," the union's statement said.

British Airways chief executive Roderick Eddington told the BBC that the airline was caught in the middle.

"This is not our dispute," he said. "Our customers must come first and everyone involved in creating this chaotic situation must come to their senses."

Friday evening at Heathrow, David Illingworth, 57, a retired Harvard University administrator and Episcopal priest from Boston, was sitting with his suitcase inside one of the tents set up near Terminal 4. In Britain on vacation, he came to the airport Friday morning hoping to catch a flight home, where he was supposed to help his elderly father in Maine attend his 65th high school reunion.

Illingworth knew about the strike, but he said British Airways telephones were busy and the airline's Web site seemed to be down when he tried to check it from an Internet café. So he decided to chance it and make the trip to Heathrow, where he ended up stuck with everyone else in the parking lot.

"The beginning and the middle of the trip were lovely," he said, "but the end is horrible."

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