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British Airways resumes Heathrow flights

113,000 people affected after service halted by labor dispute
Thousands of passengers face long delays after BA canceled all Heathrow flights until Friday evening.



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London Heathrow Airport
Great Britain
Labor Dispute

LONDON, England (CNN) -- British Airways resumed flights at Heathrow Airport after a work stoppage by baggage handlers and other employees crippled service and stranded more than 100,000 passengers.

The 1,000 BA workers began reporting for duty early Friday, one day after they walked off the job in support of workers fired by a catering company contracted by the airline.

The employees chose to end their action after talks were announced in an effort to resolve the dispute.

BA appealed to customers booked on Friday's flights not to go to Heathrow but to check their status online or by calling BA.

The first BA flight left Heathrow ahead of schedule at around 6:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m. ET) bound for Casablanca, Morocco. The airline had originally said limited service would resume at 8 p.m.

The airline scheduled more than 30 flights for late Friday, but it could take days before the airline catches up. More than 113,000 travelers were affected by the dispute, the airline said.

The airline -- the third-largest in Europe -- said it hopes to have 50 percent of its short-haul flights running Saturday and 40 percent of its long-haul service.

"We face a complex logistical challenge with at least 100 aircraft and 1,000 flying crew out of position. As a result, it will take some time to return to a normal flying program," said Mike Street, BA's director of customer services and operations.

"We recognize how frustrating this must be, but we are working as hard as we can to get customers away on their holidays."

Earlier in the day, the government-backed mediation service ACAS announced it would oversee talks in a bid to resolve the dispute, which started Thursday when baggage handlers, loaders and cargo staff began an unofficial strike in support of sacked catering workers.

A BA spokeswoman told Reuters the airline had canceled around 535 of Friday's flights, on top of the 121 canceled Thursday when the strike action started.

Arriving flights were diverted to airports as far away as Newcastle in northern England and Glasgow, Scotland.

Qantas, Finnair, British Mediterranean and Sri Lankan Airlines, which use BA ground staff, also canceled their flights from Heathrow on Friday.

Employees at Heathrow -- one of the world's busiest international airports -- handed out food and water to hundreds of passengers, many of whom spent the night on benches and floors.

Travelers stood in long, slow-moving lines in an attempt to get on flights with other airlines.

A union representing Gate Gourmet, which provides onboard meals for British Airways flights, said the company had fired 800 workers Wednesday. The company said 667 workers had been dismissed.

The BA workers who staged the sympathy strike are represented by the same union -- the Transport and General Workers' Union.

Later Thursday, another union representing BA check-in staff advised members to stop work for health and safety reasons after angry passengers took out their frustrations on staff.

BA Chief Executive Rod Eddington said in a statement Thursday: "It is a huge disappointment to us that we have become embroiled in someone else's dispute."

A ripple effect was felt at other airports, including some in the United States.

"We have two British Airways jets parked on our runway," said Harold Johnson, spokesman for Los Angeles International Airport.

"When the strike is over, they'll probably just take those two planes and fill them with people and fly out." No one was stranded at the airport, he added.

Gate Gourmet maintained that workers staged an unofficial strike, but the TGWU accused managers of deliberately provoking the dispute.

Gate Gourmet's Chief Executive David Siegel told CNN this was the third straight August that BA workers had taken industrial action affecting passengers. "This seems to be an annual occurrence," he said.

"BA doesn't seem to take responsibility for how their passengers are being affected," he said.

Asked whether his company was trying to bring in American-style industrial relations practices, he said: "We are an international company, I am an American, we operate in more than 30 countries.

"The fact is this is a British labor problem, and we are dealing with it according to British law. Regretfully our employees took an illegal action. We spent over two hours trying to convince them to return to work and regretfully after repeating warnings -- written and verbal -- we had to dismiss them."

He said the door was open for negotiations with the TGWU to try to settle the dispute.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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