British Airways strikes are ‘timed’ to wreak havoc at the start of the summer holidays

British Airways strikes are ‘timed’ to wreak havoc at the start of the summer holidays

British Airways - Frank Augstein/AP

British Airways – Frank Augstein/AP

Summer vacation plans are being threatened by a new wave of airline and train strikes planned for the first week of the school’s summer vacation.

British Airways ground staff and baggage handlers voted overwhelmingly in favor of strikes at Heathrow Airport on Thursday, with union officials insisting deadlines would be set for the last two weekends of July to “maximize leverage”.

Ministers believe the next round of RMT rail strikes will also target the school holidays after negotiations broke down again on Thursday night without the dispute being resolved. Sources within the Department for Transport (DfT) said unions are planning a new round of strikes for the last week of July to coincide with the summer holidays and the parade games of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

Trains at a standstill near Peterborough station on the second day of this week's strike action by the RMT union - Paul Marriott

Trains at a standstill near Peterborough station on the second day of this week’s strike action by the RMT union – Paul Marriott

The BA strikes could be as early as a fortnight, but union officials said the strike would be postponed until the third or fourth weekend in July and “aimed at the first week of the school holidays”. The airline operates about 600 flights a day from Heathrow, half the airport’s capacity.

The dispute, which is affecting 700 members of the Unite and GMB unions, centers on BA’s refusal to reintroduce a 10 per cent pay rise for ground staff who had wages at the dock during the pandemic. Instead, the airline is offering a one-time payment for this year only.

Unions said “holidaymakers are facing massive disruption” but blamed “British Airways’ stubbornness”.

The strike at Heathrow combined with a halt to trains is likely to have further knock-on effects on Britain’s roads while threatening chaos on the motorways. Airports were overwhelmed at half-term and BA strikes at Heathrow combined with a ceiling at Gatwick that could see up to 10,000 flights canceled will only increase the likelihood of a miserable summer for holidaymakers.

Now British Airways workers are voting to strike - aiming for a summer holiday for maximum effect - DANIEL LEAL /AFP

Now British Airways workers are voting to strike – aiming for a summer holiday for maximum effect – DANIEL LEAL /AFP

Downing Street expressed concern about another transport strike but insisted the dispute was beyond its control. Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said on Thursday: “This is obviously a matter between British Airways and the unions and we would strongly encourage both to come together to find an agreement.

“We don’t want any further disruption to passengers and strikes would only add to the misery of passengers at airports.

“The DfT will of course be working closely together to consider what emergency measures BA could take to ensure as little disruption is caused and that passengers can be reimbursed in the event of disruption.”

A DfT source warned that further strikes by airline and rail workers in late July could wipe out family vacations. The source said: “Our airports, airlines and tour operators are private companies. They need to put customers first and ensure flight bookings are honored and not canceled at the eleventh hour.”

The next strikes could affect the Commonwealth Games

Ministers are also concerned that the next round of train strikes could coincide with the Commonwealth Games, which are being held in Birmingham from 28 July to 8 August.

“It would be a tragedy if the Commonwealth Games, an event designed to bring people together, were to be sabotaged by a deliberately timed strike,” a government source said.

The prospect of more travel chaos came on the second of three days of national rail strikes, after 40,000 RMT members pulled out in a bitter dispute over wages, jobs and working conditions.

The RMT and Network Rail remain far apart in that the size of a pay rise – Network Rail is officially offering up to 3 per cent and the RMT wants a pay rise in line with 9 per cent inflation – has not even been discussed. According to sources on both sides, talks are still stuck over the RMT’s requirement that any downsizing be voluntary, while Network Rail insists on a modernization program before any meaningful salary offer can be made.

On Thursday, Network Rail managed to operate just one service in five, with the last trains from London to Scotland departing at 2pm. Rider numbers were between 12 and 18 percent of normal levels, Network Rail said.

Mr Johnson on Thursday called the strikes a “terrible idea” and described them as “unnecessary”.

Union officials suggested the strikes at Heathrow could spread to BA workers at Gatwick, even though the airline has reduced flights from the country’s second busiest airport since the pandemic. BA ground staff at Gatwick consider industrial action over pay.

Nadine Houghton, GMB national officer, said: “With grim predictability, holidaymakers are facing massive disruption thanks to British Airways’ stubbornness.”

She said BA offered its workers “crumbs off the table” in the form of a one-off 10 percent bonus instead of putting back “the 10 percent they stole from them last year,” noting managers were taking their salaries in full had reinstated.

Calling on BA to heed unions’ demands, Ms Houghton said: “It’s not too late to save the summer holidays – other BA workers have reversed their pay cuts. Do the same for the ground and check-in staff and this industrial dispute can be nipped in the bud.”

Oliver Richardson, Unite’s national aviation officer, said: “The problems British Airways is facing are entirely homegrown. During the pandemic, jobs and wages have been brutally slashed, despite the government paying them to save jobs. Strike action will inevitably result in severe disruption to BA services at Heathrow.”

GMB voted 91 percent in favor of a strike, while Unite members voted 94 percent.

In a statement, BA said: “We are extremely disappointed with the outcome and that unions have chosen this course of action.

“Despite the very challenging environment and losses in excess of £4billion, we made an offer of a 10 per cent payment which was accepted by the majority of our other colleagues.

“We are determined to find a solution together because to deliver for our customers and rebuild our business we need to work as a team.

“We will of course update our customers on what this means for them as the situation evolves.”

Travelers “on the edge of the seat all the time”

Travel industry experts urged the two sides to come to terms in favor of an industry brought to its knees by the pandemic. Clive Wratten, executive director of the Business Travel Association, said: “Travellers deserve much better. The business travel association calls on the airline, the trade unions and the employees to stand up for the interests of their passengers. You cannot destroy confidence in international travel.”

Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, said: “It’s worrying because people are standing on the edge of their seats all the time, worried they’ll get an email saying their flights are canceled or changed will. It’s not just BA, there’s Easyjet and Ryanair strikes in Spain. I don’t think BA wants to add to the uncertainty. You will want to find a compromise.”

Rory Boland, editor of which? Travel, said: “Passengers must not bear the brunt of these strikes. British Airways should take the necessary precautions to avoid a series of extremely disruptive last minute cancellations.”

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