Thousands of passengers heading for their summer holidays were stranded at Heathrow last night as an unofficial strike by British Airways check-in staff left the airport in chaos.
Although BA staff at Europe's busiest airport finally returned to their desks just after 2pm yesterday it was still several hours before flights resumed. The delays left many passengers - out of a total of 80,000 affected by the strike - facing a second night stuck at the airport.
The strike, which lasted 24 hours, caused the cancellation of more than 400 flights. A BA spokeswoman said yesterday afternoon that staff were "slowly shifting the backlog". Long-haul flights resumed yesterday at 6pm, with short-haul flights restarting this morning.
The action came on one of the busiest weekends at the airport - the start of the school summer holidays.
The were massive queues both on Friday and yesterday around Terminals One and Four, with hundreds of passengers spending a sleepless night waiting for the dispute to end. An estimated 250 check-in staff, including BA's entire complement from Terminal One, took part in the unofficial industrial action, protesting at new working practices due to be implemented on Tuesday.
The walkout hit a number of long-haul flights at Terminal Four, but mostly affected European holiday destinations from Terminal One, including Spain, Italy, France, Germany and Holland. Domestic flights were also badly disrupted.
Britons scheduled to return to Heathrow from airports all over the continent were also told their flights home had been cancelled, leaving some stranded abroad at the end of their holidays, and others forced to rebook with other airlines where possible.
Despite earlier assurances from BA that normal service would resume at 10am yesterday, the strike continued well into the day. Finally, an announcement was made by a union official around 2pm that staff were returning to work "as a gesture of goodwill to passengers".
Shortly afterwards, a BA spokeswoman said: "Staff are starting to return across the terminals and we are talking to the unions."
The workers taking part in the industrial action are members of the GMB, the Transport and General Workers Union and Amicus, but the strike has no official union backing. They were protesting, among other things, at plans to introduce Automated Time Recording (ATR) - an electronic system which requires employees to swipe in and out for shifts - in the terminals on Tuesday. They claim this will lead to employees being sent home during quiet periods and working longer hours when it is busy.
BA describes the accusation as "absolute nonsense", saying it is merely trying to introduce a new system for signing on and off work which is common throughout British industry.
"The ATR scheme has been discussed for months and months, and we've been continually talking to the unions about it," a BA spokeswoman said. "There are 2,000 of our staff on the ground already using it - this action is purely to do with its introduction to the airport's terminals."
Yesterday's action is also believed to be linked to a row over pay. BA has offered its staff a rise of 3 per cent, but that figure is conditional on the adoption of working practices including the ATR swipe scheme.
A spokeswoman for the GMB said that, while the union could not condone an unofficial walkout, it sympathised with the workers' grievances.
"The company specifically linked these conditions to the pay rise, but on Thursday they told us they would start imposing these conditions, even though discussions over pay are still ongoing," she said. "Morale is rock-bottom. There was only a 1 per cent pay rise last year, and we are still waiting for this year's. On top of that, there have been 13,000 redundancies announced during the downturn following September 11.
"It's not just about a swipe card - but about a wider context. This was the straw that broke the camel's back."