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BA's strife-hit summers

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- British Airways is one of the world's largest, busiest and most profitable airlines.

The airline carried nearly 36 million passengers in the year to March 31, 2005 and made a pre-tax profit of £415 million ($750 million) in the same 12 months -- up from £230 million the previous year.

But strikes, the threat of industrial action and other staff issues have continued to plague the carrier, even as it weathered a number of industry-wide problems -- including an economic downturn in the United States and other countries, the lasting effects of the events of September 11, 2001, the SARS outbreak abroad and the foot-and-mouth crisis in Britain.

This is the third summer in a row that thousands of passengers have been hit hard by staff problems centered on the heart of BA's Heathrow operation.

Tens of thousands of passengers had their travel disrupted when an unofficial strike led to the cancellation of more than 500 flights in July 2003.

Staff walked out to protest against the introduction of a time-recording system that required them to swipe cards at the beginning and end of each shift.

The workers from the airline's check-in, sales, ticketing and reservations operations said they feared the new system could lead to them being sent home during quiet periods and being asked to work longer when it was busy.

While the strike initially came as a surprise to the trade unions, they backed the employees and were considering calling a ballot for official industrial action against the airline.

British Airways insisted the swipe-card system would not affect workers' pay or conditions, but it took more than a week to broker an agreement with the unions -- which then removed the threat of official strikes.

The days of chaos that summer affected the airline's worldwide network of routes and was the worst industrial action BA had seen since its cabin crews went on strike in 1997.

A year later, in August 2004, the Transport and General Workers' Union and the GMB union did hold a ballot on industrial action and its members voted to strike against British Airways in a row over pay.

The walkouts by baggage handlers, check-in staff and ground crews were planned for the busy August bank holiday weekend but were averted when the two sides agreed to wage increases and lump-sum payments as well as what the airline called a "robust absence policy" designed to tackle employees who were persistently off work without being ill.

But just two days after that deal -- on the bank holiday weekend targeted by unions -- British Airways operations at Heathrow were badly disrupted, mostly because there simply was not enough staff.

The airline admitted it was to blame and drafted in people from across the company to work at Heathrow to try to clear the backlog. It also sent more than 200 staff on customer service training courses so they could take some of the strain.

Thousands of passengers were inconvenienced in an embarrassing three days for British Airways.

This summer, the problems leading to the walkout originated outside British Airways itself with disputes at its catering provider, Gate Gourmet. But the outcome for passengers is the same -- long queues, planes going nowhere and trips disrupted.

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