Heathrow strike: Everything you need to know as airport ground handling walkout begins

Unite union says ‘strike action will inevitably cause serious delays’ – but the airport and handling firm say contingency plans are in operation

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 18 November 2022 08:37 GMT
Case chase: many passengers have reported problems with missing and delayed luggage at Heathrow
Case chase: many passengers have reported problems with missing and delayed luggage at Heathrow (Simon Calder)

Three hundred and fifty ground handlers at Heathrow have just begun a three-day strike in a dispute over pay. The stoppage is due to end at 4am on Monday 21 November.

The employees are members of the Unite union and are involved work largely in loading and unloading baggage for the ground-handling firm, Menzies Aviation.

The walk-out comes as fans of England and Wales prepare to fly to Qatar for the World Cup, which begins on Sunday 20 November.

Here’s everything you need to know.

Which airlines could be affected?

Unite says the strike action will “particularly affect” 10 airlines: Aer Lingus of Ireland; Lufthansa of Germany and its subsidiaries, Austrian Airlines and Swiss; the transatlantic carriers Air Canada and American Airlines; Qantas of Australia; Egyptair; Finnair; and TAP Portugal.

Until Thursday it was expected that twice as many ground-handling staff would walk out, affecting many more airlines.

But Unite reached an agreement with Dnata on an improved offer on Thursday and the strike was called off. Dnata said the deal “provides concrete support for our employees amidst the current cost of living crisis”.

Passengers flying on Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Emirates should not now have their journeys disrupted.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic passengers were not in line to be affected, because their ground handling arrangements are separate.

How much disruption will there be?

The union claims “Heathrow is braced for major disruption”. Unite’s regional officer, Kevin Hall, said: “The strike action will inevitably cause serious delays for passengers at Heathrow.”

Since aviation returned at scale after the Covid crisis, staff shortages among handlers have caused problems even with everyone working normally. Many passengers have reported problems with missing and delayed luggage at airports including Heathrow.

But the airport’s bosses say the strike should not lead to flights being grounded. A Heathrow spokesperson said: “Affected airlines already have contingency matters in place and flight cancellations are not anticipated.” 

Typically when ground handling staff take industrial action, managers are brought in from other airports to cover.

What is the dispute about?

Pay. The union says: “This dispute is entirely of Menzies’ own making. It has had every opportunity to make our members a fair pay offer, but it has stubbornly refused to do so.

“All of the offers made to date are far below the current real inflation rate of 14.2 per cent (RPI) and amount to a substantial real terms pay cut.”

Menzies Aviation calls the union “incredibly obstructive” and says “strike action will benefit no-one”.

Miguel Gomez Sjunnesson, the company’s executive vice-president Europe, said he wanted “to reassure our airline customers and their passengers that we have robust contingency plans in place”.

Should passengers with future bookings be worried about strikes?

The threat of industrial action never seems far from aviation, and there have been a series of disputes involving ground handling firms.

Before the coronavirus pandemic there was something of a race to the bottom with ground handlers being driven ever lower on price by the airlines who contract them. But most disputes are being settled with substantial increases.

The main worry about strikes is probably from air-traffic controllers abroad, particularly in France, which can cause large-scale cancellations.

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