Saturday, August 13, 2005

Pedestrian queues and flight cancellations create tourist chaos

Frontier and airport blocked by outside disputes

Gibraltar was caught-up in the pincer-like grip of industrial action from outside that ‘clamped’ the local tourist industry at the peak of the summer season, and severely blocked the flow of people into and out of the Rock yesterday afternoon.

While the on-going work-to-rule action by the Policia Nacional created headaches under the sun for tourists and ordinary citizens alike with long pedestrian queues at the border, a wildcat strike by luggage handlers in Heathrow airport threw the Gibraltar airport into a state of chaos and dismay.

And as frustrated passengers waiting to board the early afternoon BA flight to London received news of the cancellation and people trying to cross the frontier into Spain were confronted with considerable border delays, the scene at the Gibraltar isthmus choc-a-bloc with unhappy, stranded tourists showed just how quickly circumstances can coincide to turn a tourist destination into a tourist nightmare.

According to British Airways the Gibraltar bound aircraft had to be diverted to Malaga because of the weather conditions and was unable to service the flight back to London. It was also unable to wait for local passengers to be transferred to Malaga because the crew “were very close to exceeding their maximum operating hours.” British Airways apologised to its customers last night.

Gibraltarians were among the 70,000 passengers caught up in the wild-cat strike staged by disgruntled luggage handlers at Heathrow airport on Thursday.

The local airport was also hit by the action with disruption to flight schedules and massive inconvenience to passengers who were unable to board their booked flight.

As it turned out the dispute was settled yesterday in time for the evening flight to Heathrow to take off with minimum delays.

The Monarch flight from Luton airport to the Rock and the Manchester flight was unaffected by the industrial action.

Earlier the local airport lobby was packed with irate passengers some of whom had connecting flights to catch in London to travel to other countries for business purposes and cases of persons losing out on their booked holiday cruises.

Passengers were unanimous in their criticism of British Airways condemning the lack of clarity and accurate information received from the company.

Unnofficial Industrial action to blame, says BA

A BA spokesman said yesterday:

“British Airways has cancelled all flights into and out of London Heathrow airport until 2000 (UK local) on Friday 12 August.

As a British Airways franchise partner, all GB Airways flights to Heathrow have been cancelled too.

This follows the suspension of all British Airways’ Heathrow flights on Thursday afternoon (11 August) as a result of unofficial industrial action by staff from catering company Gate Gourmet.

The unofficial action spread to British Airways ground staff.

Due to the uncertainty of the industrial situation at Heathrow, GB Airways has taken the decision to cancel all flights today (Friday 12 August).

GB Airways operated last night’s Gibraltar to Heathrow service into Luton airport and today sent the aircraft back to Gibraltar from Luton to collect today’s Heathrow customers. Unfortunately weather problems prevented the aircraft from landing in Gibraltar and it had to divert to Malaga.

On arrival in Malaga, the crew were very close to exceeding their maximum operating hours and were unable to wait for customers to transfer from Gibraltar to Malaga. Disappointingly we had no choice but to bring the aircraft back to London Gatwick without any customers on board.

A commercial policy affecting all customers due to travel to Heathrow before Monday 15 August 23.59 (UK local) has been drawn up. Details are available on ba.com.

Customers due to travel during this period should contact GB Airways (tel 79300) in Gibraltar where they will have the choice of rebooking on to alternative services, re-routing from another airport or a refund. Alternatively details are available on ba.com. We apologise unreservedly to our customers.

Flights to and from London Gatwick are unaffected.”

Strikers return to work

The unofficial strike which left more than 70,000 passengers stranded after British Airways cancelled all of its flights in and out of Heathrow has ended, according to UK press reports last night.

A TGWU statement in Britain said that “all the striking British Airways staff, who were supporting 800 workers sacked from a catering firm, are returning to work.”

Sky News reported that several hundred baggage handlers, loaders, cargo staff and other workers at the airport staged the lightning strike in support of employees of caterers Gate Gourmet, which supplies BA after the firm sacked 800 employees in a row over working practices.

The TGWU accused the firm of acting in a “disgraceful” fashion and called on BA to exert pressure to resolve the dispute.

At the time of going to press there was a meeting underway between the TGWU and Gate Gourmet, with the conciliation service ACAS, to try and break the deadlock.

Meanwhile, British Airways has pledged to rebook or refund all the passengers caught up in the crisis, which is estimated to be costing the company around £10m a day.

BA put up about 4,000 passengers in hotels on Thursday night but hundreds more were forced to sleep in the terminals. Nearly 500 flights have had to be cancelled.

No flights are expected to take off or land before 8pm today at the earliest.

BA’s Chief Executive Sir Rod Eddington said the company was hugely disappointed to be embroiled in someone else’s dispute. He said:

“This unprecedented move is a result of the crippling operational impact of unofficial industrial action by staff on the TGWU.

Because we have not had sufficient airport staff to operate flights into or out of Heathrow, nearly 100 of our aircraft and 1,000 pilots and cabin crew are in the wrong places around the world and we simply cannot mount a robust operation any earlier.

It is a huge disappointment to us that we have become embroiled in someone else’s dispute.

I urge the management of Gate Gourmet and senior TGWU officials to find a speedy resolution to this crisis and end the misery they are heaping on our customers.

Equally, those members of the TGWU employed by British Airways must end their crippling unofficial action in support of the Gate Gourmet dispute.

This is not our dispute. Our customers must come first and everyone involved in creating this chaotic situation must come to their senses.”

The dispute has also spread to a number of other airlines including Finnair, Sri Lankan Airways, Qantas, GB Airlines and British Mediterranean Airlines.

BA operates around 550 flights a day at Heathrow at this time of year, traditionally one of the busiest weeks for the airline industry.

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