BA strike could cause summer travel chaos

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Tens of thousands of holidaymakers and business travellers face a summer of severe disruption at Britain's main airports after a second group of British Airways employees decided to ballot on industrial action.

More than 9,000 ground staff at Heathrow, Gatwick and Birmingham are to vote on strikes in protest at plans to contract out catering operations at a time when a similar number of cabin crew are already being balloted in a separate dispute over pay and conditions.

Union officials are confident of a "yes" vote in both cases and unless there are substantial concessions from management the Blair government could be faced with its first major industrial dispute.

While chartered holiday flights to the Mediterranean and elsewhere should not be affected, BA's scheduled international services could be hit in the peak summer months.

While there may be scope for concessions in the complex dispute involving cabin crew, BA yesterday insisted that the decision to sell the catering operation, based at Heathrow would not be reversed.

A spokesman for the airline said: "It is much better to invest in new planes rather than new kitchens. We are not specialists in this area and we are the only European airline producing our own food."

George Ryde, national aviation official at the Transport and General Works Union, said the plan to hive off catering was a "kick in the teeth" to workers who had made sacrifices to ensure the profitability of the business. ''In return for their efforts they wanted job security, and it is this which is being put at risk by the plan to sell the operation.

"No British Airways employee will be safe from similar schemes if the catering sell-off goes ahead. This is a highly productive and cost-effective operation, and its sale only makes sense as part of a plan to turn BA into a 'virtual airline' built around contracted-out businesses."

As part of the campaign against the sell-off, the union is to ballot baggage handlers, clerks, check-in employees and ramp workers as well as catering staff. The ballot result is due on 30 June. While the union is at pains to point out that they are separate disputes, it is inevitable that the action would be co-ordinated to cause the maximum disruption.

The airline yesterday acknowledged that it had contingency plans to keep the airline running if the action went ahead.

Plans to alter terms and conditions of cabin staff and to contract out catering is part of BA's determination to save pounds 1bn in operating costs by 2000.

Other employees at the airline have accepted pay freezes in response to management strictures, but there is considerable anger among the 58,000 workforce over the strategy. The company recently announced record pre- tax profits of pounds 640m, but management argues that savings are necessary to maintain profitability into the next century.

The airline recently announced a pounds 94m pay out to employees made up of an pounds 89m share of the profits and 10 free BA shares each. The bonus was said to be worth at least pounds 1,100 each for UK employees.