Baggage handling strike threatens Portugal’s summer season
A strike by 81.2% of Groundforce baggage handlers who say they have not received their summer bonus salary caused mayhem at Portugal’s largest airport over the weekend.
Over 650 flights to and from Lisbon were cancelled over the two-days strike. Some 321 flights out of 515 from Lisbon had been cancelled on Sunday according to a source from the airports management company ANA.
“Because of the strike affecting the handling service, of the 511 flights expected today (Sunday), 301 flights (160 arrivals and 141 departures) have been cancelled while 210 flights are expected to be operational (102 arrivals and 108 departures),” a source told the Portuguese news agency Lusa. The number was updated and included slightly more.
At Porto airport 13 arrivals and 13 departures had been cancelled by Sunday.
ANA issued a warning to all passengers with tickets to fly to check if their flights are operating before heading to the airport.
“We call on passengers with cancelled flights to not go to Lisbon airport and seek information through other channels, either digital or telephone,” said the company.
Flights were normal for low cost airlines using Lisbon’s Terminal 2 which use a different baggage handler.
On Saturday as a result of the strike, 242 flights to and from Lisbon were cancelled, 107 arrivals and 135 departures. On the same day at Porto airport, 18 flights had to be cancelled (nine arrivals and nine departures).
Faro airport, the entry point for the lion’s share of Portugal’s summer tourists, was affected considerably less with just six flights cancelled ( three arrivals and three departures), Madeira also lost six flights while the island of Porto Santo saw four cancelled flights.
The Groundforce strike has not helped an already difficult situation for Portugal’s tourism industry as several countries have placed the holiday destination on its red list because of the spread of the Delta variant of Covid-19.
Portugal now tops the list of European Union countries with the highest incidence of the virus and has been put on the ‘red list’ by Rumania, the Netherlands, Morocco, and the Czech Republic. Travellers flying to these countries from Portugal face a mandatory quarantine of 14 days.
Unions representing Groundforce staff are striking because the company has been late in paying salaries on at least three occasions this year, the latest of which was considered “unacceptable” and included the non-payment of holiday pay subsidies.
Groundforce, which is technically bankrupt because of the Covid-19 crisis, has been trying to find a buyer. The company that currently holds a 50.1% controlling share in the handler, Pasogal, is owned by Portuguese logistics and removals mogul, Alfredo Casimiro.
The company has been accused by the new executive president of the national carrier TAP, Christine Ourmiéres-Widener of showing a “lack of respect” for both passengers and staff.
Alfredo Casimiro had rejected TAP’s suggestion that Groundforce pay the staff holiday subsidies because he is demanding that TAP pay out €7 million to Groundforce for baggage handling services provided.
“Groundforce took the decision not to accept TAP’s proposal and instead put the interests of some of its own shareholders first (Pasogal) before those of its own staff and all of the passengers by trying to prevent Groundforce’s insolvency process,” she said.
“TAP does not accept this lack of respect for its passengers and also the lack of respect for Groundforce staff,” added Ourmiéres-Widener on behalf of the airline which owns the other 49.9% of Groundforce.
In 2020 the Portuguese Government took a majority share in TAP (72.5%), the airline which is Groundforce’s main client, responsible for 70% of the baggage handler’s business.
But there are suspicions that the baggage handlers are simply being used as hostage collateral in a war between the Government which wants to take control of Groundforce in lieu of the company’s debts and Casimiro who needs to satisfy the interests of shareholders.
On 10 May, TAP applied to the courts for an bankruptcy order to be placed on Groundforce arguing that the company’s financial situation had become worse and that there were no credible solutions for the company to get further financing, or for Groundforce to win back the confidence of its creditors.
To protect the interest of his shareholders, Alfredo Casimiro has already publicly announced the his stake in the company is up for grabs, but just one company, the Swiss baggage handler Swissport, is said to still be eyeing the purchase deal. However, a former Groundforce senior management figure, Paulo Neto Leite wants to buy the handling company for €5 million at a Montepio auction. Groundforce’s contract with TAP will end in January 2022.