British Airways Strike Could Have Long-Lasting Impact

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The last of the 70,000 travellers stranded by last week's wildcat strike at Heathrow airport are finally getting off the ground. But the British Airway's caterer that triggered the dispute is still locked in talks with labor union leaders. And the financial damage to Britain's flagship carrier could be far-reaching.


The business news starts with the trouble at British Airways. The last of 70,000 travelers are finally getting off the ground after being stranded by last week's strike at Heathrow Airport in London. But the British Airways caterers who triggered this dispute are still in talks with union leaders, and the financial damage to Britain's flag carrier could be far-reaching as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from London.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

British Airways said the last stranded travelers now have confirmed bookings to make it out of London by Thursday, more than a week after the strike began. Baggage handlers are forwarding on some 5,000 pieces of luggage still stuck at the airport.

The problem started last Wednesday when US-owned caterer Gate Gourmet sacked several hundred employees who had launched a wildcat strike. BA baggage handlers and ground crews then walked off their jobs in sympathy. Gate Gourmet has so far refused to reinstate all of the fired workers and remains in mediated talks with the Transport and General Workers' Union. Tony Woodley is the union's general secretary.

Mr. TONY WOODLEY (Transport and General Workers' Union): Right now there's a third party who haven't been involved in these discussions, and that's British Airways. You know, these are the pipers that's calling the tune, playing the tune at the end of the day, and we're now needing to have a discussion with both them and Gate Gourmet.

KUHN: The strikes themselves barely lasted two days, but industry analysts say they may have cost BA over $70 million, including the cost of compensating passengers and putting them up in hotels.

BA successfully fought off the adverse effects of 9/11 and soaring fuel costs. It's protected its turf against discount carriers by offering the services to business travelers which its competitors had eliminated.

BA insists that it was caught between the caterers and the unions, but it was clearly paying the price of outsourcing services to companies which it has no control over. It's the third year in a row that BA has suffered wildcat strikes at the height of the tourist season, dealing another heavy blow to its reputation.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, London.

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