The dawn skies around Heathrow are far quieter than normal. British Airways, the airline that operates more than half of the flights at Europe’s busiest international airport, has shut down the vast majority of its operation because of a pilots’ strike.
Flight crew who belong to the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) are engaged in a bitter pay dispute with BA. They have gone on strike for 48 hours, triggering the cancellation of almost all the airline’s 1,700 flights to and from Heathrow and Gatwick on Monday and Tuesday.
The travel plans of around 200,000 passengers have been disrupted.
Although pilots who are abroad are not entitled to strike, British Airways cancelled more than 50 Sunday night intercontinental flights to Heathrow.
Most cancellations were scheduled to depart from North America, including all seven from New York JFK, as well as two flights from each of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto.
Elsewhere, services from Chennai, Lagos and Mexico City to Heathrow were among those grounded.
There were two reasons for taking this dramatic and expensive step.
First, insufficient room to park BA’s fleet at its main base: “downroute” airports can comfortably accommodate a handful of British Airways aircraft; New York JFK alone is currently hosting 15 BA planes.
Second, the cancellation of onward flights. Normally a significant proportion of passengers arriving at Heathrow on intercontinental flights early in the morning are transferring to other British Airways departures: to UK, European and more distant destinations.
By cancelling services that would normally land almost 15,000 passengers between them, BA is reducing the scale of problems at Heathrow.
The departure screens at Heathrow Terminal 5 are almost blank. Besides code-share flights operated by Iberia to Madrid, the only departures are to Tokyo and Cairo, with one inbound arrival expected from Edinburgh.
At Gatwick, the only service on Monday is to New York JFK, which is operated by a third-party airline, Evelop.
It is by far the biggest strike in the history of British Airways.
Balpa says: “BA made £2bn profit in 2018. We are seeking to share in a tiny fraction of that huge profit.
“BA’s belligerent attitude is going to cost them, their shareholders and their passengers far more than resolving this dispute via negotiation would.”
A British Airways spokesperson said: “We understand the frustration and disruption Balpa’s strike action has caused our customers. After many months of trying to resolve the pay dispute, we are extremely sorry that it has come to this.
“Unfortunately, with no detail from Balpa on which pilots would strike, we had no way of predicting how many would come to work or which aircraft they are qualified to fly, so we had no option but to cancel nearly 100 per cent of our flights.
“We remain ready and willing to return to talks with Balpa.”
Rail and Underground links to Heathrow Terminal 5 are operating normally, but with almost no passengers between the central part of the airport and BA’s main terminal. Only seven passengers travelled on the first Heathrow Express arrival at Terminal 5 from London Paddington.
The British Airways check-in area is almost devoid of passengers. Most were told two weeks ago their flights were cancelled.
But one perplexed traveller, Teresa McKeon, arrived from Perth on the 17-hour nonstop Qantas flight unaware that her onward connection to Dublin had been grounded. She had been in Australia for a month.
As British Airways staff tried to find a seat for Ms McKeon on an Aer Lingus flight, she shrugged and said: “Usually when I travel, things go disastrously wrong.”
Retailers and catering outlets at what is usually Heathrow’s busiest terminal will be racking up losses – but nothing like on the scale of British Airways.
The airline is set to lose up to £100m on the first two days of Balpa’s planned strikes.
Another stoppage is planned for 27 September. And, in a move that will unsettle passengers with future bookings on BA, and benefit rival airlines, the pilots’ union warned: “Our industrial action ballot is valid until January. Further strike dates may be announced.”
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