British Airways strike: How will industrial action affect flights and holidays from Heathrow?

Hundreds of British Airways ground staff working at London Heathrow have voted to strike in a pay dispute. The workers at Terminals 3 and 5 are expected to walk out in July.

What are the chances that your flight will be affected? These are the key questions and answers.

Who are the British Airways workers involved in this dispute?

The 700 BA personnel are known as “above the wing” ground staff in Terminals 3 and 5 at Heathrow airport. They work landside (before the security search) at check-in, administer bookings, check documents – including Covid test and vaccination certificates – and walk the floor helping passengers.

Airside, they operate the boarding gates and provide support for travellers. Most are women, and they are represented by the GMB and Unite unions.

They have voting overwhelmingly for industrial action over a pay claim.

Why are they striking?

During the slump in aviation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, their wages were cut by 10 per cent – in line with other groups of British Airways employees. BA has offered a one-off payment of 10 per cent this year, but the workers want the cash restored into their basic pay.

Nadine Houghton, GMB national officer, said the 10 per cent was “stolen from them last year” and that “bosses’ pay has returned to pre-pandemic levels”.

In addition, she says, these front-line workers are often on the receiving end of verbal and sometimes physical abuse from passengers, with frequent confrontations at times of disruption.

“GMB members at Heathrow have suffered untold abuse as they deal with the travel chaos caused by staff shortages and IT failures,” she said.

British Airways says it is “extremely disappointed” with the result, saying the 10 per cent bonus was made despite losses of more than ?4bn during the coronavirus pandemic, and that it has been accepted by the majority of other colleagues.

When will they walk out?

Union officials have not yet announced dates. Because two weeks’ notice of industrial action must be given to an employer, the earliest that a stoppage could begin is 8 July.

Some insiders have suggested that a first bout of strike action could take place as soon as the weekend of 9 and 10 July, coinciding with the first weekend of summer holidays for many public schools in England.

One British Airways insider said the intention was to disrupt the journeys of high-spending customers. “They’re hoping to impact the family holidays of BA’s most important demographic, their frequent flyers,” the source said.

But the GMB says “industrial action dates will be confirmed in the coming days but are likely to be during the peak summer holiday period”. If no announcement is made before the weekend, a more likely start date is Friday 22 July – at the start of the holidays for many schools in England and Wales.

What will the effect be?

Ms Houghton said: “Holidaymakers face massive disruption thanks to the pig-headedness of British Airways.” The staff involved have accrued pienty of expertise over the past two years about the Covid-19 travel restrictions in the hundred-plus British Airways destinations from Heathrow, and if those checks slow down the operation could swiftly snarl up.

BA could choose pre-emptively to cancel some flights from Heathrow to ease pressure on the terminals.

But as well as the ground staff involved in this dispute, BA has many other workers fulfilling the same roles. In addition, management and other staff could be drafted in to cover.

The closest equivalent to the current dispute was an unofficial walk-out involving ground staff in 2005, in support of catering workers. On that occasion BA’s Heathrow operation was paralysed. But far more of the passenger process is now automated.

In addition, British Airways is currently operating about 10 per cent fewer flights than expected, after cancelling thousands of departures due to a shortage of resources. This will reduce the strain on the operation.

Will a strike affect other British Airways locations?

At the other bases in the capital, Gatwick and London City, ground staff duties are outsourced and there will be no effect. To and from regional airports in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as abroad, disruption at Heathrow would have knock-on effects.

I’m booked with British Airways from Heathrow in July. How worried should I be?

At this stage it is impossible to say. A settlement is entirely possible: the staff involved are far from militant. British Airways says: “We are fully committed to work together to find a solution.”

Strike dates have not been announced, and BA has yet to outline its plans for dealing with any stoppage.

Under European air passengers’ rights rules, anyone whose flight is cancelled is entitled to be flown as soon as possible, on any airline.

The giant travel agency Trailfinders is telling customers with advance bookings: “We are aware of the possibility of some British Airways staff striking this summer. If this goes ahead details will follow.

“If your flight is affected we would contact you and do all we can to find you an alternative.”

Is there anything I can do right now?

There is no point calling or messaging British Airways, because the airline will have nothing to say beyond “your flight is currently scheduled to operate as normal”.

If your journey is time-critical, you could book an alternative flight – but you would only be able to get a refund if your flight turns out to be grounded.

If the strike goes ahead, should I travel with hand luggage only?

If you possibly can, that is always a wise idea. You can bypass check-in, the possibility of the bag being mistakenly sent to the other side of the world (or left behind at Heathrow) is eliminated; there is no need to wait around for your luggage on arrival; and you often save money.

British Airways has the most generous allowance of any UK airline, permitting two bags weighing 23kg each. As a mitigation, in the event of a strike passengers might be asked to bring cabin baggage only.

But this in turn could lead to problems: already on busy flights the overhead lockers are not able to handle all the hand luggage.

What does the government say?

Asked about the Heathrow dispute, a Downing Street spokesperson said: “This is obviously a matter for British Airways and the unions, and we would strongly encourage both to come together to find a settlement.

“We don’t want to see any further disruption for passengers. strike action would only add to the misery being faced by passengers at airports.

“DfT will obviously work closely to look at what contingency measures BA could put in place. We expect BA to put in place contingency measures to ensure that as little disruption as possible is caused, and that where there is disruption passengers can be refunded.”

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