A dispute between the Unite trade union and Heathrow Airport could result in hundreds of flights being cancelled and at least 88,000 passengers disrupted if a planned strike goes ahead on Monday and Tuesday next week. The dispute over pay and conditions involves more than 4,000 staffers at the airport including security guards, firefighters, engineers, passenger service operatives and passenger service drivers.
Unite suspended two earlier days of planned strike action at the end of July so that workers could vote on an improved offer by the airport. However, early results from a consultative ballot suggest the vast majority of staffers have rejected the deal – urgent talks at an independent government mediation service are expected to take place over the weekend in order to find a compromise that both parties are happy with.
If those crunch talks don’t work out then at least 20% of flights could be cancelled on Monday 5th and Tuesday 6th August. All airlines that operate out of Heathrow are set to be affected by the planned strike, although British Airways which has a dominant position at the West London airport is likely to be worst hit.
British Airways is currently advising passengers to expect long queues at airport security checkpoints and has restricted the amount of hand luggage that passengers can take with them. Airline employees aren’t involved in this dispute so any checked luggage should make it onto flights.
The Unite union has warned Heathrow that it can expect a bill of at least £2.3 million in compensation for any airlines affected by the dispute. The union claims Heathrow would have to pay £26 per passenger on board every cancelled flight.
Many workers are furious with a widening pay gap between managers at the airport and its frontline workers. Last year, the chief executive of the airport, John Holland-Kaye was paid £4.2 million – a 103% increase on his wages the previous year. Meanwhile, Heathrow is offering workers involved in the dispute a mere pay increase of just £3.75 extra a day.
“If members do reject the pay offer and Heathrow bosses dig their heels in, then there is a risk the airport is seen to prefer paying millions in compensation to airlines and needlessly causing misery for the travelling public, instead of sorting the dispute by going the extra mile and giving its workforce a decent pay rise,” explained Unite’s regional coordinating officer Wayne King.
King suggested Heathrow’s approach to negotiations was more about union-busting than cost-cutting.
Heathrow maintains that it has contingency plans in place to deal with the strike, although it’s not clear how the airport will deal with a walkout by firefighters who have overwhelmingly backed strike action. The airport must have a full fire fighting service to operate services and this could be severely impacted.
A second two-day strike is also slated to hit the airport on Friday 23rd August and Saturday 24th August.