British Airways strikes ‘timed’ to bring chaos at start of school summer holidays

·6-min read
British Airways - Frank Augstein /AP
British Airways - Frank Augstein /AP

Summer holiday plans are under threat from a fresh wave of airline and train strikes timed for the first week of the school summer break.

British Airways ground crew and baggage handlers voted overwhelmingly on Thursday for strikes over pay at Heathrow airport with union officials insisting dates would be set for the last two weekends of July to “maximise leverage”.

Ministers believe the next round of RMT rail strikes will also target the school holidays after negotiations again broke down on Thursday night with no resolution to the dispute. Sources inside the Department for Transport (DfT) said the unions were planning a new round of strikes for the final week of July to coincide with the summer holidays and the showpiece Commonwealth games being staged in Birmingham.

Trains at a standstill near Peterborough station on the second day of strike action by the RMT union this week - Paul Marriott
Trains at a standstill near Peterborough station on the second day of strike action by the RMT union this week - Paul Marriott

The BA strikes could take place as soon as a fortnight’s time but union officials said the walkout would be delayed until the third or fourth weekend in July and “aimed at the first week of the school holidays”. The airline operates about 600 flights a day from Heathrow, half the airport’s capacity.

The dispute, affecting 700 members of the Unite and GMB unions, is over BA’s refusal to reinstate a 10 per cent pay rise to ground crew who were docked wages during the pandemic. The airline is instead offering a one-off payment for this year only.

The unions said “holidaymakers face massive disruption” but blamed it on “the pig-headedness of British Airways”.

The Heathrow strike coupled with a shutdown on the trains is likely to have a further knock-on effect on British roads, threatening chaos on the motorways at the same time. Airports were overwhelmed in the half term break and the BA strikes at Heathrow coupled with a cap at Gatwick that could see as many as 10,000 flights scrapped will only increase the likelihood of a miserable summer ahead for holidaymakers.

Now British Airways workers vote to strike - and target summer getaway for maximum impact - DANIEL LEAL /AFP
Now British Airways workers vote to strike - and target summer getaway for maximum impact - DANIEL LEAL /AFP

Downing Street expressed its alarm at yet another transport strike but insisted the dispute was out of its control. Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said on Thursday: “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 and 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 to ensure that as little disruption is caused, and that where there is disruption that passengers can be refunded”.

A DfT source warned that more strikes by airline workers and rail employees at the end of July could scupper family holidays. The source said: “Our airports, airlines and tour operators are private concerns. They need to put customers first and ensure flight bookings are honoured and not cancelled at the eleventh hour.”

Next strikes could impact Commonwealth Games

Ministers are also concerned that the next round of train strikes could be timed to coincide with the Commonwealth Games, which is taking place in Birmingham between July 28 and August 8.

“It would be a tragedy if the Commonwealth Games, an event meant to bring people together, was sabotaged by a deliberately-timed strike,” a government source said.

The prospect of further travel chaos came on the second of three days of national rail strikes after 40,000 RMT members walked out in a bitter dispute over pay, jobs and conditions.

The RMT and Network Rail remain poles apart to the extent that the size of any pay rise - Network Rail is officially offering up to three per cent and the RMT wants a pay rise in line with nine per cent inflation - has not even been discussed. According to sources on both sides, the talks are still stuck over the RMT’s demand that any job cuts are voluntary while Network Rail is insisting on a modernisation programme before any substantial pay offer can be made.

On Thursday, Network Rail managed to run just one-in-five services, with the last trains from London to Scotland leaving by 2pm. Passenger numbers were somewhere between 12 and 18 per cent of normal levels, said Network Rail.

Mr Johnson on Thursday branded the strikes a “terrible idea”, describing them as “unnecessary”.

Union officials suggested the Heathrow strikes could spread to BA staff at Gatwick although the airline has reduced flights from the country’s second biggest airport since the pandemic. BA ground staff at Gatwick are considering industrial action over pay.

Nadine Houghton, the GMB national officer, said: “With grim predictability, holidaymakers face massive disruption thanks to the pig-headedness of British Airways.”

She said BA had offered its workers “crumbs from the table” in the form of a one-off ten per cent bonus payment rather than reinstating “the 10 per cent they had stolen from them last year” and pointed out managers had their salaries fully reinstated.

Ms Houghton urged BA to meet the unions’ demands, saying: “It’s not too late to save the summer holidays - other BA workers have had their pay cuts reversed. Do the same for ground and check-in staff and this industrial action can be nipped in the bud.”

Oliver Richardson, the Unite national officer for aviation, said: “The problems British Airways is facing are entirely of its own making. It brutally cut jobs and pay during the pandemic even though the Government was paying them to save jobs. Strike action will inevitably cause severe disruption to BA’s services at Heathrow.”

GMB voted 91 per cent in favour of a strike while Unite’s members voted by 94 per cent.

In a statement, BA said: “We’re extremely disappointed with the result and that the unions have chosen to take this course of action.

“Despite the extremely challenging environment and losses of more than £4 billion, we made an offer of a 10 per cent payment which was accepted by the majority of other colleagues.

“We are fully committed to work together to find a solution, because to deliver for our customers and rebuild our business we have to work as a team.

“We will of course keep our customers updated about what this means for them as the situation evolves.”

Travellers ‘on the edge of their seats all the time’

Travel industry experts urged the two sides to settle for the sake of an industry brought to its knees by the pandemic. Clive Wratten, the chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said: “Travellers deserve much better. The Business Travel Association demands the airline, the unions and employees must serve the interests of its passengers. They can’t crush confidence in international travel.”

Paul Charles, the chief executive of the travel consultancy The PC Agency, said: “It’s unsettling because people are on the edge of their seats all the time worried they will get an email cancelling or changing their flights. It’s not just BA, you have Easyjet and Ryanair strikes in Spain. I think BA won’t want to add to the uncertainty. They’ll want to reach a compromise.”

Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said: “Passengers must not be made to bear the brunt of these strikes. British Airways should make the necessary arrangements to avoid a raft of hugely disruptive last-minute cancellations.”

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