Hundreds of Heathrow airport workers will go on strike for three days later this month, potentially disrupting travel plans for football fans planning to fly to the World Cup in Qatar.
The Unite union said 700 workers involved in ground handling, airside transport and cargo at Europe’s busiest airport were to go on strike from the early hours of 18 November to the early hours of 21 November over pay demands.
Fans jetting to the World Cup could face the prospect of missing England’s first game, a group match against Iran on 21 November, as the strike action is expected to cause delays at Heathrow Terminals 2, 3 and 4. Qatar Airways operates from Terminal 4 and has scheduled an additional 10 flights a week during the tournament.
It also raises more difficulties for its chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, after Heathrow’s decision to implement a 100,000 daily passenger cap between mid-July and the end of October infuriated airlines.
Sir Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin Atlantic, said earlier this week he would be “really pissed off” if Heathrow imposed further restrictions on capacity at Christmas.
The summer disruption also led to speculation over Holland-Kaye’s future at the airport, including criticism from Willie Walsh, the director general of airline body Iata and former boss of the British Airways parent group IAG, who described Heathrow as “a bunch of idiots when it comes to running airports”.
“Strike action will inevitably cause disruption, delays and cancellations to flights throughout Heathrow, with travellers to the World Cup particularly affected,” said Kevin Hall, a regional officer at the Unite union.
Other airlines that will be hit by the strike action include Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Emirates.
Passengers returning to the US for the Thanksgiving holiday may also be affected.
Ground handlers are responsible for aircraft while they are on the ground, assisting with the efficient arrival, turnaround and departure of jets. They also have responsibilities for handling baggage and freight.
Airlines have responsibility for ground handling, and each airline makes its own arrangements for providing these services.
The striking workers are employed by Dnata and Menzies.
“Our members at Dnata and Menzies undertake highly challenging roles and are simply seeking a decent pay rise,” said Sharon Graham, the general secretary of Unite. “Both companies are highly profitable and can fully afford to make a fair pay increase.”
Unite said Dnata had offered its workers a 5% pay increase, while the offer from Menzies ranged from 2% to 6%. The union said both of the companies were offering real-terms pay cuts.
A Heathrow spokesperson said: “We are aware of proposed industrial action from Dnata and Menzies colleagues at Heathrow, and we are in discussions with our airline partners on what contingency plans they can implement to support their ground handling should the strike go ahead.
“Our priority is to ensure passengers are not disrupted by airline ground handler shortages.”
Dnata said its UK airport operations business was making a financial loss each month as a result of inflation and the impact of the pandemic. The company called Unite’s proposed salary increase “irresponsible” and said it did not “reflect the challenging economic environment” for the business.
Alex Doisneau, the managing director of Dnata UK, said the industrial action had come despite the company’s offer to staff “of an award which, with previous increases, amounts to a pay rise of 15.5% (20.2% for HGV drivers) since December 2021 … This is in line with inflation and among the best in the industry.”
Dnata said it was implementing contingency plans to minimise disruption to its operations during the strike.
Menzies Aviation called Unite “obstructive” and accused them of refusing to join discussions over a pay increase for its ground handlers.
“This threatening of industrial action is all about creating sensationalist headlines rather than doing what’s right for their members,” said Miguel Gomez Sjunnesson, executive vice president Europe, Menzies Aviation. “We are ready and willing to continue pay discussions, which we believe is in the best interest of our employees.”
Menzies said it was also working on contingency plans.