BA flights resume as strike talks drag on

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Hundreds of workers who were sacked by the catering company, Gate Gourmet, on Wednesday after what the company calls "unofficial strike action" were out in force at Heathrow airport again yesterday, continuing to demand they be reinstated.

Gate Gourmet accused protesters of turning nasty, saying staff who had crossed the picket lines to enter the factory were being "racially, physically and verbally intimidated". The company said staff were being subjected to abuse on entering the site, and some workers had received threatening phone calls. Gate Gourmet said it had reported the incidents to the police, who were investigating the claims.

The sacked employees, however, deny they have been involved in any threatening activity and the Metropolitan Police also said it had no record of any incidents reported at the Gate Gourmet site.

While talks to reinstate workers at the company continued, the ordeal for passengers at Heathrow was at least coming to an end. About 85 per cent of British Airway's scheduled short-haul flights and 80 per cent of its long-haul flights from the airport were operating yesterday after more than 700 flights were cancelled due to wildcat strikes at the airport. More than 1,000 BA staff walked out on Thursday in sympathy with the workers at Gate Gourmet, forcing BA to suspend all flights for more than 24 hours.

Only a few hundred passengers remained at hotels in Heathrow last night waiting for their new flights to leave. "All passengers affected have now been rebooked on other flights," a spokesman for the airline said. But BA said it would take days before services returned to normal. "The long-haul operation is expected to take a little longer to normalise, due to the complex logistics in rebuilding the schedule," a BA spokeswoman said. "We expect most people will have travelled by the middle of the week."

Passengers will have to stock up on food and drink before they travel, however. Gate Gourmet is only able to supply flights with tea, coffee, water and snacks.

Stranded and delayed passengers continued to crowd tents outside Heathrow as the backlog of passengers was slow to clear. Many have been forced to buy new clothes after failing to retrieve their luggage. About 10,000 pieces of baggage have gone missing.

There were also some irate scenes when people with tickets to travel yesterday turned up and were able to board a plane immediately. Passengers who have been waiting several days were not given priority above those with current tickets. "We don't want to disrupt the operation further by stopping people who are booked to fly today from flying," BA said.

Tony Woodley, the general secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union (T&G), took up negotiations on behalf of Gate Gourmet staff as talks resumed with management at a hotel near Heathrow. The T&G is also meeting with executives at BA in the hope that the airline will put pressure on Gate Gourmet to reinstate workers. "Fairly tough negotiations are happening," said a TGWU spokesman. The biggest sticking point between the two parties is whether the 670 sacked workers can be reinstated. Gate Gourmet has already filled its factory with eastern European labourers.

Delayed passengers who want compensation from BA may also be disappointed. New EU rules on compensation for air travel delays do not include disruption caused by strike, and BA is only promising to review compensation claims on a case by case basis.

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