Another 1,500 cancelled British Airways flights and strike action by workers who refuel planes at Heathrow airport threaten to wreak havoc on the UK’s summer getaway.
The airline warned on Tuesday that it would cancel the additional flights in the coming weeks as it struggles to cope with disruption and staff shortages, shortly before the airport workers said they were preparing to walk out on the first weekend of the school holiday.
The union Unite said members employed by Aviation Fuel Services — one of four companies providing fuelling services at the UK’s busiest airport — would stage an initial 72-hour strike, from July 21 to July 24, in a dispute over pay.
It warned the strike would cause “considerable disruption and delays” because the company provided services to almost 70 airlines operating at Heathrow — although it added that there was still room to reach a deal “if AFS returns to the negotiating table”.
The threat of spreading strike action will add to airlines’ troubles as they seek to avert a repeat of the delays and cancellations that hit passengers during the UK’s school half term last month.
BA’s operations at Heathrow would not be affected by any industrial action at AFS, as it uses different refuelling companies. But the airline faces the possibility of a strike by around half of its own Heathrow check-in staff, which could potentially take place on the same weekend — although the unions Unite and GMB have not yet set any date for action.
BA on Tuesday said it would cut its summer flight schedule further because the aviation sector was facing “the most challenging period in its history”.
It is also said to be reviewing whether to cut yet more flights later this week after the UK government announced an amnesty on strict rules that force airlines to use or lose their lucrative take-off and landing slots.
BA laid out plans in May to cut back 10 per cent of flights during its summer season, which runs between March and October, to try to inject reliability into its flagging operations.
The carrier has now decided to cut a further 1 per cent, which is the equivalent of about 1,500 flights, the majority of which will be taken out this month.
By axing the flights early, BA management hopes to avoid the last-minute disruption that hit some airlines in the UK early last month, resulting in chaotic scenes as many passengers learnt of flight cancellations one after arriving at the airport.
Still, the need to lose more flights is a blow to the airline and chief executive Sean Doyle, who had hoped the decisive action in May would allow the group to operate its pared-down schedule in full.
BA is understaffed after cutting about 10,000 employees during the pandemic, but it has also suffered from the wider resourcing issues facing the entire industry, including airports, subcontracted ground handlers and air traffic control staff.
“As the entire aviation industry continues to face into the most challenging period in its history, regrettably it has become necessary to make some further reductions. We’re in touch with customers to apologise and offer to rebook them or issue a full refund,” the airline said in a statement.
Other airlines, including easyJet and Lufthansa, have been forced to take similar action to cut their schedules after overestimating how many flights they and their suppliers would be able to deliver this summer.