No pie in the sky as strike ends BA's flight meals

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The Independent Online

Now British Airways has added hunger to the list of woes after hundreds of its long-haul flights were forced to take off from Heathrow without in-flight meals. The airline was even forced to tell customers who had already paid hundreds of pounds that they should eat before they boarded following the shortage, caused by unofficial strike action by catering staff.

More than 500 staff employed by Gate Gourmet, the UK's biggest supplier on in-flight catering, stopped working in a dramatic escalation of a long-running row over the hiring of seasonal staff. Gate Gourmet, owned by Texas Pacific, the US private equity fund, accused workers of "1970s-style working practices" and promptly sacked hundreds of staff who refused to work, claiming that it was "un-balloted strike action and a breach of contract".

BA said 250 flights were affected by the dispute yesterday, taking off without food and only the most basic requirements of water, tea and coffee available. Another 70 flights with other airlines were also affected.

The airline set up emergency feeding stations in its airport lounges for passengers facing long-haul flights of 12 to 14 hours. A BA spokesman said the company had no idea how long the dispute would last for, adding that customers were also offered refunds on flights or the chance to re-book.

"It is too early to say what impact this action by Gate Gourmet staff will have on our operation," said a BA statement.

While airline food is often the butt of jokes, British Airways has signed up several well-known chefs, including Michel Roux, to boost the profile of its in-flight menus - though their work is usually reserved for passengers travelling in first class.

But yesterday, no dishes were being prepared after Gate Gourmet workers staged a sit-in during the morning. The chaos continued when Gate Gourmet management used megaphones to warn its afternoon shift, gathered in a car park, to return to work or face immediate dismissal.

Gate Gourmet said that outmoded working practices meant staff were often paid a full day's pay for half a day's work and that during peak production periods staff refused to help colleagues on other work lines, even though they had nothing to do themselves. Above-market pay rates were being paid for below-market productivity, it said.

The dispute with staff had brought Gate Gourmet's UK operations to the verge of collapse with the business set to lose £25m this year, the firm said. Management suspects certain shop stewards with the Transport and General Workers' Union (T&G) of inciting the strike. Without an urgent restructuring, including a £14m reduction in labour costs, Gate Gourmet will not survive, its management warned.

Eric Born, the managing director, said: "If we don't change, the company will not survive and there will be no future. We now have to take control of this situation swiftly, which may lead to a restructuring to avoid the total collapse of the company."

The T&G said that Gate Gourmet was undermining its own future. The union said it had entered talks about a redundancy programme but that hiring more temporary staff while the full-time workforce faced the threat of job losses was "a provocative move".

But Gate Gourmet said that unless the dispute was resolved soon, it threatened the jobs of all its 2,000 workers at Heathrow.

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