British Airways (search) canceled all long- and short-haul flights due to depart from London's Heathrow airport (search) Thursday afternoon and diverted arriving flights, after an industrial dispute escalated.
The company said flights would remain grounded until at least 6 p.m. Friday.
Sixty-two short-haul and 44 long-haul outbound flights, due to depart from Heathrow were canceled, an additional 14 short-haul flights and an unknown number of long-haul flights which were en route to Heathrow were being diverted to other airports in Britain and other flights bound for London were being canceled before taking off.
The cancellations were announced after British Airways' staff joined an industrial dispute between the airline's caterer Gate Gourmet (search) and its work force.
A union representing Gate Gourmet, which provides onboard meals for British Airways flights, said the company had fired 800 workers on Wednesday. The company said only 667 workers had been dismissed.
British Airways' workers represented by the same union, including baggage handlers and loaders, stopped work Thursday in sympathy with the fired catering staff.
Later Thursday, another union representing British Airways check-in staff advised its members to stop work for health and safety reasons after disgruntled passengers took out their frustrations on staff.
British Airways chief executive Rod Eddington said in a statement Thursday that the cancellations were necessary because "of the crippling operational impact of unofficial industrial action by staff from the Transport and General Workers union."
"Because we have not had sufficient airport staff to operate flights into or out of Heathrow, nearly 100 of our aircraft and 1,000 pilots and cabin crew are in the wrong places around the world and we simply cannot mount a robust operation any earlier," Eddington said.
"It is a huge disappointment to us that we have become embroiled in someone else's dispute," he said. "I have urged the Transport and General Workers Union and Gate Gourmet managers to resolve this dispute and end this misery for our customers."
Earlier Thursday, British Airways planes took off from Heathrow without catering facilities. Passengers were given food parcels to take on board with them, or offered vouchers to buy food at the airport before boarding.
No other airlines were affected by the dispute at Gate Gourmet, which is owned by U.S. company Texas Pacific Group.
British Airways has about 550 flights a day in and out of its main hub, Heathrow, carrying around 100,000 passengers. A spokesman said an estimated 17,000 passengers had been affected by the cancellations.
The airline estimated 70,000 passengers would be affected by the cancellations.
Passengers booked on flights with a further five airlines that use British Airways' ground staff at Heathrow airport — Sri Lankan Airlines, Finnair, GB Airlines, British Mediterranean Airlines and Qantas — could also face delays or cancellations.
Gate Gourmet claimed that workers staged an unofficial strike, but the Transport and General Workers Union accused managers of deliberately provoking the dispute.
The company reported a loss of 23 million pounds ($41.25 million) last financial year, and was expecting a 25 million pounds ($44.84 million) loss for the current year.
U.S. shares of British Airways PLC fell 1 cent to close at $52.83 Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange.