Christmas travel chaos: How Border Force and rail strikes could affect festive travel plans

Passengers arriving at some of the UK’s major airports over the festive season could face long queues as UK Border Force staff go on strike – with a threat of Christmas flight cancellations.

The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union has announced industrial action from 23 December until the end of the year, with the exception of 27 December.

It comes at the same time as widespread railway walkouts, after the RMT union announced 12 strike dates across December 2022 and January 2023.

The PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka, said: “Like so many workers, our members are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. They are desperate.

“They are being told there is no money for them, while they watch ministers giving out government contracts worth billions of pounds to their mates.”

So how might this latest announcement affect your Christmas and New Year journeys? Here’s everything you need to know.

What’s happening?

In a dispute over pay, jobs and conditions, the people who normally check passports and assess arriving travellers will walk out at the three biggest airports: London Heathrow, London Gatwick and Manchester. They will also strike at Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow airports.

Passengers at all other UK airports are most unlikely to be affected.

Almost two million passengers are booked to fly into the affected airports during the stoppages.

The home secretary, Suella Braverman, said: “If they go ahead with those strikes there will be undeniable, serious disruption caused to many thousands of people who have holiday plans.

“I really want to urge people who have got plans to travel abroad to think carefully about their plans because they may well be impacted.”

What sort of mitigation will be in place?

The immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, says the government has “robust plans in place to minimise any delays if strike action goes ahead”.

Military personnel, civil servants and volunteers are currently being trained to stand in for Border Force at airports and ports.

Servicemen and women will be deployed under the “military aid to the civil authorities” (Maca) policy. It applies when “there is a definite need to act”, after “other options” have been discounted and when “the urgency of the task requires rapid external support”.

But the immigration minister warns: “Passengers should be prepared for their plans to be severely disrupted.”

Meanwhile The Times reported that Phil Douglas, director-general of the Border Force, has warned airlines and airports: “Our contingency workforce will not be able to operate with the same efficiency as our permanent workforce.”

How will airports be impacted?

At less busy airports (and the quiet port of Newhaven, where Border Force are also planning to walk out) there will be longer queues but no great disruption to operations.

Initially on the first day, 23 December, only arriving passengers will be affected: checks could take significantly longer. Passports are not checked when leaving the UK, and so initially there should be no impediment to outbound journeys.

But Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester are hyperactive airports with constrained space and little slack in the system at the best of times. It is possible that long queues for passport control could build up, leading to passengers being held on planes rather than disembarking and adding to the crush in Arrivals.

Aircraft turn around to depart in as little as 30 minutes. If the incoming passengers are still on board, the planes are not going anywhere.

Were this to happen, crowds would build up in the Departures area and the airport would soon run out of gates for arriving flights – possibly triggering cancellations and diversions.

To prevent schedules unravelling, discussions are taking place about pre-emptive cancellations of departures and arrivals to reduce the strain on the system.

A spokesperson for Manchester airport says: “We expect it will be necessary for airlines to cancel some services on the days impacted by strike action to ensure the number of arriving passengers aligns with lower UK Border Force resources.

“We will be working with our airlines to provide passengers with as much advance notice of cancelled services as possible, so that people have the chance to rebook their travel around the strike days.

“Arriving passengers should also be prepared for much longer immigration queues on strike days, owing to reduced Border Force staffing levels.”

But John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow airport, said: “We are doing everything we can to protect full operating schedules on Border Force strike days and departing journeys and the vast majority of arriving journeys should be unaffected.

“We have extra people in the terminals on the busiest days, including me and my management team, to ensure we get people on their way as smoothly as possible and start to bring the joy back into travel.”

As The Independent has revealed, Heathrow will feel the effects most keenly on the first day of the strike. According to calculations from the flight data specialist Cirium, 583 flights with 126,700 seats are scheduled to arrive at Heathrow on 23 December.

More than 50 intercontinental flights are scheduled to arrive at Heathrow before 7am each day.

One possibility is that some incoming flights could be re-timed to spread arrivals more evenly across the day. More than 50 intercontinental flights are due to arrive at Heathrow before 7am, representing around 12,000 passengers

What do the airlines say?

Steve Heapy, chief executive of Jet2, said: “We very much intend to operate our full schedule of flights throughout the festive period, including on the dates when strike action is taking place. Our teams will work tirelessly to make sure we fly everyone to and from their destinations so that they can enjoy those well-deserved holidays.”

A spokesperson for easyJet said: “We are currently planning to operate our flying schedule and as you would expect, we are in talks with the individual airports on their contingency plans. We want to take our customers on their planned trips at this important time of year and so we urge all parties to reach an agreement as soon as possible.”

If I have a flight booked, can I cancel out of caution?

Generally not at this stage. Most airlines and holiday companies say normal cancellation conditions apply. Most flights are expected to operate normally and the majority of Christmas travellers should still reach their destinations.

One notable exception is easyJet, which allows anyone booked to fly to Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham or Glasgow on a UK Border Force strike day to change the date of their flight, fee free and move onto another flight on the same route 14 days before or after the strike date. Alternatively you can obtain a flight voucher for the value of the flights. To arrange either option, call the easyJet customer service centre on 0330 551 5151.

If your flight is cancelled by any airline, normal European air passengers’ rights rules apply. If your flight is cancelled, you are entitled to be flown to your destination as soon as possible, if necessary on another airline.

The carrier that cancels your flight must also provide a hotel and meals if necessary while you wait to travel. But no cash compensation is payable. And being Christmas, there are going to be problems finding seats on other flights.

Will I get cash compensation if the flight is cancelled?

No. It’s not the airline’s fault.

Will international transfers be affected?

International-to-international connecting passengers – of whom the vast majority are at Heathrow – do not need to pass through the UK Border. Therefore they will not be affected by queues. However, if some flights are cancelled due to the strikes, they may have to be rebooked.

An example is a New York-Heathrow-Dublin passenger on British Airways; they could be rebooked on a direct New York-Dublin flight.

But again, that is dependent on seats being available.

Is this going to affect UK plc?

Yes. Were widespread disruption to happen, the cost to airlines could easily run into millions of pounds.In any event, it will deter late bookers who were considering a Christmas city break, ski trip or winter sun holiday.

Besides providing yet another hurdle for British travellers heading away for the festive season, the strikes will also reduce inbound tourism still further – from abroad, the UK is looking increasingly like a basket case.

Assuming I can get across the border on time, when are the train strikes happening?

More than 40,000 workers across Network Rail and 14 train operating companies are taking part in a series of walk-outs during December and January.

The industrial action is taking place on 13, 14, 16 and 17 December; from 6pm on 24 December until 7am on 27 December; and on 3, 4, 6 and 7 January.

Most UK train services do not run on 25 and 26 December anyway, but those aiming to travel by rail to see loved ones either side of Christmas Day will be affected.

The RMT has also issued an overtime ban for its members across the railway network from 18 December to 2 January.

Will the UK Border Force strike affect the time it takes to get a passport renewed?

No. Issuing and renewing passports is the responsibility of a different branch of the Home Office, HM Passport Office.

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