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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

British Strike Strands Air Travelers

LONDON -- British Airways resumed hundreds of flights at one of the world's busiest airports, while pleading for continued patience from thousands of passengers stranded by a ground-crew walkout.

The airline, facing a public relations disaster as well as losses that could reach tens of millions of dollars, said 420 out of its 500 scheduled flights were taking off Saturday from London's Heathrow airport. But with tens of thousands of passengers still grounded by the daylong strike, which ended Friday, the airline said service would not reach normal levels for several more days.

The strike was triggered by a dispute between catering staff and the U.S.-owned firm Gate Gourmet, which provides onboard meals for BA flights.

"Like all the people here, I am not pleased, but I am accepting the situation," said Latific Vanja, who was stranded with his wife and two children after flying in Friday from Los Angeles. "I am happier now that I know I will be going home tomorrow [Sunday]."

The sheer number of stranded passengers -- 70,000 on Friday and 40,000 on Thursday -- was adding to the trouble. Thousands of people spent Thursday and Friday nights at the airport; British Airways found hotel rooms for thousands more, giving them each about $180 for accommodations, with passengers having to pay any costs above that.

Huge tents were erected outside the terminals where passengers were given free coffee, tea and food, and newspapers to read. Entertainers were brought in to amuse the waiting children.

"Our priority is still to get passengers as quickly as possible to their destination," BA spokeswoman Pam Simpson said. "But absolutely we are still asking for patience, and customers are being very understanding."

This is the third straight year that British Airways has suffered a disruption during the summer season. Analysts say the airline faces losses of up to 40 million pounds ($73 million) from the latest dispute.

On its web site, the airline said that it apologized "unreservedly" to its customers. "We recognize how frustrating this must be, but we are working as hard as we can," the airline said.

The strike began when Gate Gourmet abruptly fired about 670 of its Heathrow-based workers on Wednesday, causing the rest of the catering staff to walk out in a show of support. On Thursday, about 1,000 other airport workers -- including baggage handlers, bus drivers, ramp workers and check-in staff, walked out in an unofficial strike.

A spokesman for the Transport and General Workers' Union, which represents much of Heathrow's ground staff, said that the strike was unplanned and illegal and that the union had moved quickly to get its members back to work. The union has demanded that the fired catering workers be given their jobs back and is negotiating with Gate Gourmet.

By Thursday afternoon, the entire BA fleet was grounded. Other airlines that use the same ground staff at Heathrow were also affected.

Talks continued over the weekend to resolve the catering dispute that triggered the chaos. Though all of the 1,000 striking workers returned to their jobs Friday afternoon, the airline had to get 100 aircraft and 1,000 flight crew stranded by the industrial action back to where they belonged, BA spokeswoman Becky Thornton said.

"It will take several days to get some stability to our schedule," she said.

(AP, NYT)