A recent survey by the U.K.’s Transport Intelligence group pointed to shippers’ concerns over their forwarders’ ability to provide information proactively when service disruptions or changes occur. As if to test shippers’ concerns, a wildcat strike at British Airways’ (BA) London Heathrow operations disrupted its entire network, giving forwarders a chance to prove themselves.
AMI’s Mick Baker points out, shippers receive a booking confirmation when they tender freight to the forwarder. The rapid escalation of the labor dispute which ultimately drew British Airways workers into a sympathy strike gave the shipping community no advance notice. During what he describes as a “difficult weekend,” Baker and other forwarders identified consignments affected by the BA shut down and rerouted them on other carriers. Shippers whose consignments were affected got a message informing them of the change.
We were able to get information out to shippers quickly, continued Baker, “but only on those shipments that were actually affected. We’re not going to do any scare mongering on the basis of shipments that aren’t going to be affected by the dispute.”
Baker noted that by the beginning of the following week, the network was back to normal. “There are no long term issues. We’re back supporting British Airways in line with what we were giving them prior to the dispute. We’re a reactive business as well as a proactive business and, from that point of view, we’re well versed in being able to accommodate short-term problems as part of our business,” said Baker.
This particular disruption resulted when BA ground workers, members of the Transport and General Workers Union, struck in sympathy with over 600 employees of Gate Gourmet who were fired by the U.S.-based firm after they staged a strike. The Gate Gourmet workers are members of the same union.
British Airways should have anticipated the action of its catering supplier, the resulting strike and the possibility of sympathy strikes, said Yossi Sheffi, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Transportation and Logistics. Thus, continued Sheffi, the airline could have and should have had a contingency plan. He compared the BA preparations with those of Northwest Airlines whose machinist union is threatening to strike. “Not only has Northwest been training replacement machinists, but it has also arranged to outsource its maintenance service to keep its planes flying,” notes Sheffi. It is also training replacement flight attendants in case they join the machinists in a strike action.
BA outsourced catering aboard its flights to Gate Gourmet, part of Texas Pacific Group. As tensions between Gate Gourmet employees and management escalated, the workers staged a wildcat strike and were fired. BA baggage handlers and ramp workers then walked out in sympathy, despite the fact secondary strikes are not legal in the U.K. Other airlines that use BA’s ground services at Heathrow airport were also affected. BA had no prior notice or indications of a strike by its workers, it is not in contract negotiations, nor is it addressing a dispute with ground workers. As forwarder Baker notes, the situation escalated so quickly BA had no opportunity to notify customers, including freight forwarders and shippers, of any potential action.
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