Britain's busiest airports are bracing themselves for a new year of crippling strikes after 5,000 workers voted for industrial action, while last night freezing fog disrupted the start of the Christmas getaway.
Staff at the British Airports Authority (BAA), which runs seven UK airports including Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, will hold two 24-hour strikes and one 48-hour strike in January which will bring chaos for travellers and could spell financial disaster for airlines and BAA.
Last night thousands of passengers were stranded when flights in and out of Gatwick and Southampton airports were cancelled because of severe fog. Around 16 departures were cancelled at Gatwick. At London City, problems caused by the fog disrupted flights from mid-afternoon. A Southampton Airport spokeswoman said passengers should contact their airline for re-booking and to check whether flights would depart tomorrow.
The Met Office said: "There is a lot of fog over Southern England which is expected to remain throughout the rest of the night. It will gradually improve in the morning across much of Britain but may linger in East Anglia."
The Unite union said its strike actions, starting on 7 January, will force BAA to close its airports because its staff perform vital duties. The vote to strike over a decision by BAA to close its final-salary pension scheme to new employees provoked a call from British Airways for both sides to reach an agreement.
BAA, owned by the Spanish company Ferrovial, criticised the planned walk-outs but pledged new talks. A spokesman said: "We continue to believe industrial action is unnecessary, because none of our existing employees will be affected by the changes to our pension arrangements. We do recognise there are important concerns and these will continue to be addressed."
Union leaders, who have scheduled 24-hour strikes starting at 6am on 7 and 14 January and a 48-hour walk-out at 6am on 17 January, said a decision had been taken not to disrupt new year travel plans by holding the action as early as next week. But the chosen date for the first strike will maximise difficulties for BAA, which also runs Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Southampton airports, by coinciding with the introduction of an increase in the amount of hand luggage passengers are allowed, from one bag to two.
Brendan Gold, Unite's aviation organiser, said the action had been provoked by intransigence at Ferrovial. He said: "It's not a UK management decision but a decision taken in Spain that I do not believe has the backing of the UK management team." Business leaders warned that the strikes would cost millions after a turbulent 12 months at Heathrow, which has been hit by security delays and protests over its plans for expansion
This weekend, millions of people headed for airports, motorways and rail stations. The RAC said it expected 18 million cars on the roads yesterday and today, then a Christmas lull followed by renewed jams on 27 and 28 December. Adam Cracknell, of the RAC, said: "People tend to spend time with their families until Boxing Day but after that the bargain mist comes down."
An estimated 3.5 million Britons spending Christmas abroad began their journeys yesterday. But the 18 million people heading for the motorways faced a plunge in temperatures. Accidents and heavy traffic caused queues on the M6, M40, M4 and M25 in London.Railway stations were also busy as travellers raced to avoid engineering works.
Forecasters predicted icy conditions in much of southern England with freezing fog in the north and Scotland. But chances of a white Christmas looked slim, with temperatures set for 9C (48F).
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