This article was first published in the summer of 2019 as part of a 100 part series on the history of British Airways and its predecessor airlines, Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA. You can browse the full series of 100 stories in numerical order, by theme or by decade.
Former CEO of British Airways Sir Rod Eddington was once quoted as saying that when he woke up in the morning his first thought was whether BA aircraft are still in the air or not.
On one morning during Rod Eddington’s tenure, they were not.
The reason why dates back to 1997 when, as part of a business efficiency programme, BA decided to outsource its in-house catering function to Gate Gourmet. The company was subsequently sold to the private equity firm Texas Pacific Group.
8 years later, in the peak of the 2005 summer travel season, it would come back to haunt BA in quite spectacular fashion.
The exact facts behind this episode are subject to claim and counter-claim by all parties involved.
The issue first emerged in August 2005 when BA announced there would be no catering any BA flights to or from London Heathrow due to industrial action at Gate Gourmet.
What had happened is that Gate Gourmet had been in negotiations in what was then the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) on changes to its working practices, such as how many employees are required to load a dishwasher. Gate Gourmet claimed that a failure to reform its working practices threatened the long-term viability of the business.
Members of the TGWU rejected the offer. Around 667 of 2,000 Gate Gourmet employees at Heathrow took part in unofficial industrial action in protest and were sacked by Gate Gourmet.
If that wasn’t enough, the episode escalated further for as the next day BA ground staff at London Heathrow took part in a wild cat strike in sympathy with Gate Gourmet staff.
This grounded the airline’s entire London Heathrow operation for over 24 hours. It took days for the operation to return to normal, with passengers queuing outside Heathrow terminals in tents, all in front of the world’s media. 900 flights were cancelled and the estimated cost of the strike to BA was £40m.
Whilst the TGWU denied that it had any role in the wildcat strike at BA, three BA employees who were senior TGWU shop stewards were subject to disciplinary action. Two subsequently received a cash settlement from the TGWU.
BA denied that pressure on Gate Gourmet to reduce the cost of the contract nor punitive terms were a factor in the dispute. It did however agree to renegotiate its contract.
After a relatively stable period in industrial relations between trade unions and UK employers, this proved to be one of the biggest industrial disputes in the UK since the 1980s. Gate Gourmet had to go to court to obtain an injunction to limit picketing activity near its premises.
Gate Gourmet and the TGWU subsequently reached a settlement. However, it took many months to restore catering on all BA flights. In the immediate aftermath of the dispute, Club World and First Class passengers were served a World Traveller meal tray. It took many months to fully restore catering on all short-haul flights. In the interim, retail outlets at airports did a brisk trade with passengers redeeming complimentary vouchers.
BA was at pains to emphasise at the time that it had been caught up in another employer’s dispute. However, it was not immune from criticism, notably for its dependency on one supplier. This was also not the first time BA failed to spot industrial relations tensions brewing.
BA did subsequently separate its Heathrow catering contract for short-haul and long-haul flights. Do & Co is currently taking over from Gate Gourmet for BA long-haul flights at Heathrow.
This episode did not deter BA from outsourcing further functions. However, it has faced questions whether recent outsourcing of IT activities (described by one weary commentator as “your mess for less”) has played a role in IT issues at the airline over the past two years.