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Passengers arriving at Heathrow airport have been warned to expect delays/AFP

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Mass British public sector strike promises travel chaos

Passengers arriving at Heathrow airport have been warned to expect delays/AFP

LONDON, Nov 30 – More than two million British public sector workers are expected to strike on Wednesday over proposed pension reforms, threatening chaos for travellers using London’s Heathrow Airport.

Nine out of 10 of state schools will close, refuse will remain uncollected and hospitals will have skeleton staffing as workers walkout in Britain’s largest industrial action for three decades.

Passengers arriving at London’s Heathrow airport, one of the world’s busiest air hubs, have been warned to expect delays getting their passports checked as border control officials join the action.

“At this stage, we believe that immigration queues for non-EU passengers could be contained to within two to three hours,” said a statement issued by BAA, Heathrow’s operator, on Tuesday.

BAA warned that flights could be diverted away from the airport if congestion within the immigration areas became dangerous.

The strike will be the biggest test so far of Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government, which sparked the unions’ fury by proposing to bring the retirement age for public sector workers into line with the state pension.

Finance Minister George Osborne on Tuesday outlined the government’s stance, telling union leaders to call off the strike while further angering them by announcing a two-year, one-percent cap on public sector pay rises during his autumn statement.

“I would once again ask the unions why they are damaging our economy at a time like this and putting jobs at risk,” he said. “Call off the strikes tomorrow, come back to the table.”

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude on Tuesday called the strikes “indefensible and wrong”.

Under the proposals, public sector workers will be asked to work until they are 66 and increase their contribution payments by £2.8 billion ($4.4 billion, 3.3 billion euros) by 2014/2015.

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The government also plans to peg pension payouts to the Retail Price Index rate of inflation rather than the higher Consumer Price Index measure as it seeks to address the double problem of increased life expectancy and a depleted public purse.

Staff also face a lower pension payout, based on their average salary as opposed to the final salary schemes to which they are currently tied.

Cameron has also condemned the strike, arguing the government has made a reasonable offer on public sector pensions at a time when it is ushering in a raft of austerity measures aimed at slashing the deficit.

“It is not going to achieve anything and it will be damaging to our economy,” Cameron said of the strike on Monday.

But the action has the support of all the main unions and Dave Prentis, leader of the Unison union, predicted 2.6 million people could take part — making it the biggest since the 1926 General Strike.

Some airlines have cancelled flights in and out of Heathrow on Wednesday, including Middle East carrier Etihad, which has axed two flights from Abu Dhabi as well as one Heathrow-Abu Dhabi service.

Virgin Atlantic said it had slashed 1,000 people from its passenger lists for Wednesday and it and British Airways are among carriers that have waived the normal charges for those wishing to change their flights.

Other British airports have said they do not expect to be badly hit.

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