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WORLD BUSINESS

BA cancels all flights at Heathrow

Airline staff strike in support of fired caterers

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LONDON, England -- British Airways has grounded all flights at London's Heathrow airport because of industrial action by its staff in support of sub-contracted caterers.

Thursday's cancellations stranded thousands of passengers at the world's busiest airport.

CNN's Matthew Chance, speaking from Heathrow, described the scene as "chaos."

"All check-in have been suspended at Heathrow's Terminal One and Terminal Four," British Airways said.

The union for most of the airport's workers, Britain's Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), meanwhile, issued a statement saying the action was not backed by the union and had not been planned.

"This is not action we have recommended nor is it an approved strike," a press officer in the union's headquarters told CNN.

"It's not something we've organized." She said it was an unlawful dispute as far as the union was aware.

Earlier Thursday, BA passengers were being issued with food and vouchers before they boarded flights out of Heathrow.

The action by BA ground staff comes after a dispute between Gate Gourmet, which supplies catering to the airline, and its workers.

The union representing the caterers has said the company has "sacked" 800 staff in a row over plans to restructure working practices, the UK's Press Association reported.

The cancellation of check-ins was because some BA staff, including baggage loaders, were taking industrial action to support the Gourmet Gate staff.

Gourmet Gate said its workers staged an unofficial strike, which is why staff had been sacked, but the TGWU accused managers of deliberately provoking the dispute.

BA cancelled four flights from Heathrow to Hamburg and Paris on Wednesday because of the lack of food, PA reported earlier Thursday.

Almost 50 long-haul and short-haul flights took off from Heathrow with a "basic level" of catering on board -- mainly water, tea and coffee.

No talks were planned between Gourmet Gate and the union Thursday, although both sides had intended to meet Friday to discuss the dispute before it flared after the sackings.

Tony Woodley, TGWU's general secretary, issued a statement Thursday saying that he had contacted Gate Gourmet in an effort to reinstate workers and "restart talks without prejudice."

"Unfortunately, the management of Gate Gourmet has responded intransigently. They are preventing employees reporting for work. This is causing chaos at one of the world's biggest airports at the busiest time of year," the statement said.

"The company has told us that 'this is a community we cannot work with'. The employees concerned are almost all low-paid Asian workers, and such an approach is utterly unacceptable."

The union's national officer Brendan Gold told PA he was continuing to seek legal advice over the "sackings," which he added had left workers feeling "angry, confused and in a state of shock."

He said the union had been trying to deal with Gate Gourmet in a "straightforward manner" but said the row had taken a much more "sinister turn" following the sackings.

The company has claimed that the actions of those involved in the dispute yesterday had jeopardized the livelihoods of its entire 2,000-strong workforce at Heathrow.

Managing director Eric Born said the company had met the union on more than 30 occasions and had made it clear that it was facing a financial crisis.

Born said that if changes to working practices were not agreed, the company would not survive.

British Airways issued a statement on its Web site Thursday morning saying flights departing from and arriving into Heathrow airport on Thursday would have no catering onboard, but would otherwise operate as planned.

"We are making arrangements for limited catering to be provided on the ground prior to departure for affected flights. Customers are strongly advised to eat before leaving for the airport or to allow extra time at the airport to eat," the statement said.

"We apologize to those customers who are affected by this action but, regrettably, this is a situation beyond our control."

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