Air passengers face more delays

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The Independent Online

Thousands of passengers face delays at Heathrow and Gatwick airports this weekend after talks to avert industrial action broke down.

Flights at Heathrow could be delayed or cancelled from today after a new pay offer to aircraft refuellers was rejected.And at Gatwick, baggage and cargo handlers are expected to walk out for 24 hours tomorrow.

The 48-hour stoppage at Heathrow, due to begin at 4.30am, could disrupt services operated by 40 airlines including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Qantas, American Airlines, United and Air Canada. A spokesman for the airport said that while long-haul flights could experience "minor" disruptions, short-haul flights were not expected to be affected. "For the considerable majority of passengers on Friday and Saturday it should be business as normal," the spokesman said.

Kevin Hall, a Transport and General Workers' Union (T&G) official, said a new offer from the refuelling company AFS failed to compensate workers for the inferior terms and conditions offered previously. The workers refuel about a third of the 1,200 daily flights at Heathrow. At Gatwick, about 600 members of the T&G, who are employed by the ground services firm Servisair, plan to walkout in protest against the workload and the suspension of a union official.

Thomas Cook Airlines and MyTravel said last night that if the strike went ahead they would bring in their own baggage handlers. A T&G official said the union was prepared to enter into fresh negotiations to avoid the industrial action at Gatwick. Shaun Robinson, of Thomas Cook, said: "Part of our contingency plan is to bring in a baggage hit squad to ensure passengers' bags get put on to their flights and our passengers get out of Gatwick on time."

MyTravel said it had trained its own "task force" from among other staff to handle baggage.

British Airways announced yesterday that it is to recruit 200 staff to try to avoid a repetition of the disruption last month that led to flight cancellations and delays which left 1,500 people stranded.