Britain is facing a summer of travel chaos as strike threats spread

Written by Javed Iqbal

The travel chaos hitting passengers in the UK will escalate this summer after British Airways staff voted to go on strike during the school holidays and negotiations to avoid more labor battles on the railways broke down without an agreement.

About 700 BA Check-in staff at London’s Heathrow Airport have agreed to strike in a wage dispute, with unions promising “serious disruption”, time-shrinking along with the summer’s rush to fly abroad.

The results of the polls were announced when UK railways were hit by strikes for the second time in three days, with further fighting scheduled for Saturday.

The prospect of disruption at Britain’s busiest airport will revive fears that the country is set for a summer of discontent, evoking memories of the delays and cancellations that hit airports this month.

BA expects the strikes will affect about half of its check-in staff at Heathrow, after both GMB and Unite unions said 95 per cent of their members had voted to support labor struggles.

GMB said strike dates would be confirmed in the coming days and “are likely to be in the high summer holiday period”. Unite, which represents about 500 check-in staff at Heathrow, said it had given BA a “short window” to return with an improved offer before setting strike dates. It would have to give two weeks notice before any action took place.

The union is demanding that wages be reinstated to its pre-pandemic level, following a 10 per cent cut imposed by BA as the industry was almost shut down by Covid-19 travel restrictions. Management had already had full pay restored, Unite said.

The airline, which lost 4 billion. pounds over the past two years, has instead offered a one-off benefit of 10 per cent of salary rather than a full pay rise. This was accepted by other parts of the company, including crew and ground staff.

The union reached a settlement this month on a 10 per cent pay rise for 200 workers employed by British Airways Gatwick Ground Handlers.

BA said it was “extremely disappointed” but “committed to working with staff” to find a solution, while the Business Travel Association said the strikes “played with business people’s livelihoods”.

The airline has already been forced to cut 10 percent of its flight plans this summer due to staff shortages, and the planned strikes represent a major test for CEO Sean Doyle, who has made repairing staff relationships a priority.

His predecessor Alex Cruz’s tenure was marred by a devastating pilot strike and difficult relations with unions during the pandemic, when the airline lost about 10,000 workers.

“British Airways’ GMB strike dispute will be an interesting test case after Boris Johnson called on companies ‘to stay the course’ during wage disputes, ”said Paul Charles, a travel consultant.

“British Airways will not have a strike on their hands during a high summer period,” he added.

Other airlines, including easyJet and Ryanair, are also facing hostilities in some parts of the European continent.

Ministers, meanwhile, remained “hoping” that a wage agreement could be reached with the railway unions to avoid more strikes, government officials said, but the two sides failed to reach an agreement on Thursday.

A senior official close to the negotiations said the union’s private position was markedly different from its management’s public rhetoric.

“The RMTs are far more sensible in private conversations than the warlike language of the public,” he said. “We are still hoping we can make a deal.”

Another senior official said the fact that the RMT had not announced more strike dates this summer, “suggested there is still room to make a deal”.

There were some signs of thawing of the relationship on Thursday. The two sides met for negotiations, a day after the RMT refused to negotiate unless a threat to lay off jobs was taken off the table.

Network Rail executives see a way to an agreement that includes higher pay rises and few forced redundancies, in return for changing working methods within the public body’s major maintenance business.

The two sets of maintenance representatives met on Thursday to discuss the “naked” changes, which was a “slightly positive sign,” a railroad director said.

“RMT will continue its industrial campaign until a settlement is reached,” said union general secretary Mick Lynch.

Ministers on Thursday also outlined new legislation to make it easier for companies to use “skilled, temporary” temps to reduce disruption caused by labor struggles, a move criticized by Labor and the Trades Union Congress.

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Javed Iqbal

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