Strikes threaten bank holiday chaos at airports

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The Independent Online

Up to 1.3 million people may have their holidays disrupted by strike action at two of Britain's busiest airports next weekend.

Baggage handlers and check-in staff at Gatwick and Stansted are to stage two 24-hour strikes, including one on Bank Holiday Monday, in a dispute over pay.

The Unite union said its members would walk out on 25 August and 29 August, warning that all baggage handling and check-in operations at a number of airlines would be halted. Workers at Manchester airport are likely to join the walkout while union members at Birmingham and Newcastle will be balloted over strike action.

The workers, employed by Swissport, have rejected a "paltry" 3 per cent pay offer, which the union complained was well below the rate of inflation.

Over the bank holiday weekend, about 516,100 travellers will travel through Gatwick, with more than 120,000 using the airport on 25 August alone. Virgin Atlantic, Monarch, First Choice, North West and Oman Air will be among those affected, along with some smaller airlines.

At Stansted, 300 workers employed as baggage handlers and check-in staff for easyJet and Ryanair will strike over the same two 24-hour periods, 25-26 August and 29-30 August, starting at 3am on both days. About 320,000 travellers will pass through Stansted over the bank holiday weekend.

Steve Turner, Unite's national officer, said: "Our members are already struggling to keep up with rising food and energy costs. This pay offer is an insult to professional, hard-working men and women who have to operate in extremely difficult conditions.

"Our members have had enough, the liberalisation of ground handling services across UK airports has resulted in a race to the bottom which must and will stop. We will not stand back and allow labour costs to determine whether contracts are won or lost."

A spokesman for Swissport said: "Swissport is aware of the disappointing news that a small number of union members have voted for strike action at Gatwick airport. Swissport believes that a fair offer has been made to the unions in the light of the current economic climate that reflects the cost of living increase. Swissport is working with the airport operator and the customer airlines to minimise disruption."

The GMB said its members at Stansted would also strike on 25 and 29 August after voting by 9-1 in favour of industrial action. Gary Pearce, a union offical, said: "GMB members cannot afford these low pay rises given the rising prices they have to pay for food, energy and transport. The employers, the airlines and the airport operator need to adjust their view as to what our members will now accept. The only way they have of meeting higher prices passed on to them is to raise their own prices in higher pay rises."

The workers screen baggage after they leave check-in desks on the way to the hold of aircraft.Mr Pearce said: "These workers are doing one of the most vital jobs in the airport but are among the lowest paid."

The union is claiming a 5 per cent pay offer to keep pace with inflation.