Strike by BA staff grounds 400 flights: Settlement comes too late to prevent major disruption for airline passengers

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The Independent Online
DAVID GODDARD was waiting for a flight back to New Zealand: 'I'd not been here for 18 years, and it's like I've never, never been away,' he said, almost with a hint of nostalgia for days when trade unions could hold the country to ransom.

Yesterday, as he and his wife Ann tried to catch their flight home, they fell foul of the British Airways strike at Heathrow.

The Goddards, like the vast majority of disrupted travellers, took it surprisingly stoically. BA found them a flight four hours later with Air New Zealand, to Wellington rather than Auckland, but they had decided there was no point in getting angry. 'You can't do much about strikes,' he said. Back home their local island ferry service went on strike every school holiday.

The 24-hour stoppage by the Transport and General Workers' Union involving 17,000 BA workers at Heathrow, Gatwick and regional airports, led BA to cancel 400 of the 470 flights it normally operates.

Last-minute negotiations found a settlement on Thursday night, but by that time it was too late to halt the strike.

Shop stewards ratified the peace deal yesterday morning in a long-running dispute over a low-cost BA subsidiary at Gatwick. The package was accepted by 138 votes to 43 with most of the opposition believed to come from Gatwick representatives.

The company still faces tough negotiations with two other unions, including its 3,000 pilots who voted 5-1 to strike over proposals which they say could reduce pay levels by 30 per cent.

Discussions with the British Air Line Pilots' Association are expected to take place next week.

White-collar workers at Gatwick, who also took part in yesterday's action, remain in dispute and will meet tomorrow to fix a further strike date if negotiations last night and today do not produce a settlement.

George Ryde, national officer of the TGWU, said his union's dispute with BA was now over. 'I am happy we have a solid basis for going forward,' he added. The union won assurances that no member of staff would be forced to join the new short-haul subsidiary, European Operations Gatwick (EOG), at Gatwick. The new company was formed after the take over of Dan-Air last year and pay levels are up to 30 per cent lower than those for staff at Heathrow.

BA maintains that lower wages and conditions are necessary for the company to stem losses of more than pounds 30m a year.

Union negotiators also won guarantees from BA that it would consult on any contracting-out while the airline stated that it had no intention of setting up any more subsidiary companies. The unions had feared that BA would use the tactic to cut wages across its operations.

Most passengers managed to find alternative airlines, or used rail or road for domestic travel. More than 50 per cent of long- haul flights took off on schedule, but fewer than 10 per cent of domestic and European services were operated.

BA said it was confident a full service would be resumed today.

(Photograph omitted)