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About two thirds of British Airways staff participating in an unofficial strike returned to work late Friday afternoon, but the disruption to flights that began on Thursday continued as many aircraft and staff have been left in the wrong location as a result of the industrial action.

About 40,000 BA passengers were stranded around the world by cancellations on Thursday, and another 70,000 customers were affected on Friday as 1000 BA staff took part in the unofficial strike in sympathy with fellow union members working for Gate Gourmet, the catering service.

A BA spokeswoman said late on Friday afternoon that two thirds of staff had returned to work, but the airline could not say when flights would be resumed.

“While this is good news, we still have 100 aircarft and 1000 staff in the wrong positions around the world, and some ground staff that are not working normally,” she said.

Flights before 8pm Friday night remained cancelled.

Over the past 24 hours BA managers and volunteer staff tried to pacify thousands of passengers caught in the terminals at Heathrow, the world's busiest international airport, and to find emergency hotel accommodation or re-route and re-book passengers on to other airlines.

The unofficial industrial action has hit BA when it is most vulnerable, in the peak summer weeks, with its operations becoming gridlocked, leaving around 100 aircraft and 1,000 pilots and cabin crew wrongly placed around the world.

However Gate Gourmet, the catering company at the centre of the dispute, is holding talks with the Transport & General Workers Union at Acas in order to resolve the crisis. A spokesman for the TGWU said the talks had commenced by late Friday afternoon.

Other airlines have not been seriously affected. BMI British Midland, Heathrow’s second biggest airline with 14 per cent of flights, said on Friday that customers should check-in as normal although they should allow extra time due to congestion.

BMI have also increased the size of aircraft flying between Heathrow and Scotland with an additional 45 seats per flight to meet demand for the start of the Edinburgh Festival.

On Thursday night BA said that Friday it would be cancelling all 500 flights to and from Heathrow up until 6pm, and it advised customers due to travel before 8pm on Friday not to go to the airport.

On Thursday 77 outbound short-haul and 44 outbound long-haul flights were cancelled, at least 17 incoming services were diverted to airports around the UK, including Luton, Stansted, Newcastle and Glasgow, and many inbound short-haul flights were held before take-off at airports around Europe.

The company said all its 70 inbound long-haul flights would be diverted to other UK airports.

The unofficial industrial action has led to a repeat of the disruption suffered by the airline in the summers of 2003 and 2004. In July 2003 a wildcat strike by Heathrow sales and check-in staff ended up costing the airline about £40m (€58m).

The secondary action by BA members of the Transport and General Workers Union mainly baggage handlers and loaders, cargo workers and air-crew bus drivers was staged in support of TGWU members at Gate Gourmet, the independent airline catering company.

A long-running industrial dispute over restructuring and pay and conditions at Gate Gourmet rapidly escalated on Wednesday and led to the dismissal by the company of more than 600 of its 2,000 catering workers at Heathrow.

Sir Rod Eddington, BA chief executive, called on Gate Gourmet management and the TGWU to “sit down as a matter of urgency” to resolve their dispute, and he called on the union to get its BA members back to work.

In mid-morning trade BA’s share were trading down 1 per cent at 288¾p.

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