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British Airways cancels all Heathrow flights

20,000 passengers stranded

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London Heathrow Airport
Airlines
Great Britain
Labor Dispute

LONDON, England (CNN) -- British Airways has canceled all its flights out of London Heathrow Airport, diverted others and suspended check-ins at two Heathrow terminals Thursday after a strike by union workers at a food-service firm caused chaos.

Some 20,000 BA passengers at Heathrow were affected.

The airline said some of its ground staff at the airport walked off the job in support of the strikers.

After several hours, BA announced it had canceled all its flights to and from the airport, and later said the ban would last through at least 6 p.m. Friday local time (1 p.m. ET, 1700 GMT).

BA said about 100,000 passengers go through Heathrow on an average August day.

"I apologize unreservedly to our customers for the disruption to their travel plans and cancellation of our flights," BA Chief Executive Rod Eddington said in a statement released Thursday.

Some 14 aircraft due to land at Heathrow on Thursday afternoon were diverted to other British airports, a BA spokesman said, according to a Reuters report.

The Transport and General Workers Union [TGWU] said it went on strike because Gate Gourmet, a firm that caters meals for British Airways, had fired workers.

A spokesman for Gate Gourmet said the situation was regrettable but the company had fired the workers after they staged a wildcat strike and refused appeals to return to work.

CNN's Matthew Chance, speaking from Heathrow, described the scene as "chaos."

"All check-ins have been suspended at Heathrow's Terminal One and Terminal Four," British Airways said.

Earlier Thursday, BA passengers were being issued food and vouchers before they boarded flights out of Heathrow.

BA canceled four flights from Heathrow to Hamburg, Germany, and Paris on Wednesday because of the lack of food, UK's Press Association reported earlier Thursday.

Almost 50 long-haul and short-haul flights took off from Heathrow with a "basic level" of catering on board -- mainly water, tea and coffee.

No talks were planned between Gourmet Gate and the union Thursday, although both sides had intended to meet Friday to discuss the dispute before it flared after the sackings.

Tony Woodley, TGWU's general secretary, issued a statement Thursday saying he had contacted Gate Gourmet in an effort to reinstate workers and "restart talks without prejudice."

"Unfortunately, the management of Gate Gourmet has responded intransigently. They are preventing employees reporting for work. This is causing chaos at one of the world's biggest airports at the busiest time of year," the statement said.

"The company has told us that 'this is a community we cannot work with.' The employees concerned are almost all low-paid, Asian workers, and such an approach is utterly unacceptable."

The union's national officer, Brendan Gold, told PA he was continuing to seek legal advice over the "sackings," which he added had left workers feeling "angry, confused and in a state of shock."

He said the union had been trying to deal with Gate Gourmet in a "straightforward manner" but that the disagreement had taken a much more "sinister" turn following the sackings.

The company has claimed that the actions of those involved in the dispute had jeopardized the livelihoods of its entire 2,000-member work force at Heathrow.

Gate Gourmet Managing Director Eric Born said the company had met the union more than 30 times and had made it clear that it was facing a financial crisis.

Born said that if changes to working practices were not agreed, the company would not survive.

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