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Flight Snags Enrage Travelers

British Airways cites staff shortages and traffic for cancellations and delays at Heathrow.

August 25, 2004|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Blaming a dearth of check-in counter workers and heavy summer traffic, British Airways apologized Tuesday for a backup at Heathrow Airport that prompted cancellation of at least 78 flights over two days and inconvenienced thousands of businesspeople and vacationers.

Enraged travelers denounced the airline, which responded by promising that corporate volunteers and new hires would quickly alleviate the problems.

Tuesday's cancellation of 31 flights was intended to allow the airline to catch up with leftover travelers from the day before, many of whom were stranded by the scrubbing of 47 flights Monday.

"I am extremely sorry that some of our customers have had to endure delays and cancellations and have had their plans so badly disrupted," said Mike Street, the airline's director of customer service and operations.

Street blamed a combination of factors but said the chief reason for the flight jam was a shortage of workers inside the terminals Monday checking in passengers and staffing gates. He said the airline, which needs about 2,000 employees at Heathrow at this time of year, was down by about 150 employees this week because of vacancies and illness.

Street said the labor shortfall would be eased when 240 people currently being trained start work next month.

The airline had agreed last week to an 8.5% pay raise meant to avert threatened strikes of service workers and baggage handlers on Britain's Aug. 30 bank holiday.

Unions say steep cutbacks by management have left employees unhappy and overworked.

In the three years since the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, British Airways has reduced its overall workforce by 13,000 positions as it coped with the drop in air travel, rising fuel prices and more competition from small, budget airlines.

"In the short term, we are using volunteers from across different parts of the company to ensure that we can provide the levels of customer service which our passengers expect," Street pledged.

The cancellations included 45 short-haul flights Monday and 30 short-haul flights Tuesday. In addition, three long-haul flights to the U.S. on Monday were canceled because of mechanical problems.

An airline spokeswoman said British Airways found itself Monday with personnel and jets in the wrong places.

Also, she said, the heavy volume of traffic at Heathrow meant that each delay had a domino effect, tying up gates that then became unavailable for use by other flights.

Increased security checks since the Sept. 11 attacks mean that it takes longer to screen and train workers, and employees have been leaving the company at a higher-than-anticipated rate, the company said.

Many customers were unsatisfied with the explanations and apologies and accused the company of penny-pinching and mismanagement.

"An airline as big as British Airways must surely know how many staff it needs to operate its routes," South African tourist Terry Allan told London's Evening Standard newspaper.

"BA is becoming a self-serving bureaucracy [with] MBAs left, right and center but customer service is disappearing down the tubes," groused a customer from Bristol, England, identified only as Steve, writing to the BBC's website.

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