New strike threat to airline caterer Gate Gourmet

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Gate Gourmet, which brought British Airways to a standstill when staff went on strike in the summer of 2005, could be facing another summer of discontent following allegations that its employees at Bristol airport were unfairly treated.

The Gate Gourmet group last year won the contract to supply meals to easyJet's Bristol International operation from rival Alpha Airports. Under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) laws, known as Tupe, Gate Gourmet was obliged to take on Alpha's existing staff producing easyJet's in-flight meals. However, six employees were let go and have since November been fighting the company at an employment tribunal.

The former employees' union, Unite, is understood to have told the company to "mend its ways" or face a repeat of the turmoil two and a half years ago, when a strike by Gate Gourmet staff disrupted travel for tens of thousands of passengers attempting to board British Airways jets.

When Gate Gourmet sacked 670 staff in August 2005, an illegal strike was staged to protest against hiring of temporary seasonal workers. Staff at BA then walked out in sympathy. This led to hundreds of flight cancellations, as long-haul services are not permitted to take off without adequate food for passengers.

While a spokeswoman for the union said there were no current plans to ballot on any action, one person close to the situation said staff could take matters into their own hands if Gate Gourmet continued to find itself in employment tribunals.

A spokeswoman for Gate Gourmet said: "Following our successful bid for this contract at Bristol airport, a very small number of tribunal cases have arisen. Although it is our view that the Tupe regulations do not apply in these six cases, since the legal process is ongoing it is not appropriate to make any further comment at this time."

Not only would a strike potentially affect thousands of passengers, it could deal a significant blow to Gate Gourmet's chances of retaining Britain's largest airline catering contract. The company is once again head-to-head with Alpha in the bidding to win BA's £1.8bn 10-year catering contract. Gate Gourmet currently holds the contract until 2010, but BA has moved to award a new deal early, so any new supplier would be able to set up the necessary infrastructure to provide 80,000 meals a day at Heathrow in time.

Alpha's deal to supply 20,000 meals to BA at Gatwick also forms part of the new contract. The winner is expected to be announced in March. However, in order to avoid the scenes of 2005, when reliance on one caterer led to chaos, BA may opt to work with a consortium or multiple suppliers.