Train strikes this week: May Day signals weeks of strike chaos for travellers, Simon Calder reports

Travellers by air and rail are about to face weeks of strike disruption as well as further delays at HM Passport Office.

Thousands of travellers hoping to return to the UK on Monday 1 May, the last day of the bank holiday weekend, are being told their flights are cancelled.

May Day has been chosen for the latest general strike in France in protest against Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms. French air-traffic controllers are joining the walkout, with airlines being ordered to ground hundreds of flights.

Ryanair alone has cancelled 220 departures, and says 40,000 passengers have had their travel plans wrecked. The cancelled services include flights to and from London Stansted, Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh, as well as those serving destinations in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France itself.

The Irish airline has collected hundreds of thousands of signatures for an online petition asking the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to protect so-called “overflights” – that is, flights that both take off and land in countries other than France, but need to cross French airspace – when air-traffic controllers walk out.

The chief executive of the Ryanair Group, Michael O’Leary, said in a video message: “France must be required by the EU Commission to protect overflights. It is unfair that flights from the UK to Spain, or flights from Italy to Portugal, are being cancelled simply because a bunch of French air-traffic control unions want to go on strike.

“We respect their right to strike. But if they want to strike, cancel the French flights, protect the overflights.”

Budget rival easyJet has grounded dozens of flights, including links from London Gatwick, Luton, Bristol and Manchester to destinations in France.

British Airways has cancelled at least 40 flights to and from London, including services to and from Italy, Switzerland and Spain as well as France.

Passengers whose flights are axed are entitled to be flown to their destination as soon as possible, including on a rival airline if necessary, and provided with meals and accommodation until they are able to travel. But they are not due cash compensation.

Anyone who reaches France is likely to find onward transport, particular on the railways and the Paris Metro, severely disrupted.

Cancellations are likely to continue into Tuesday.

In the UK, the strike by staff at HM Passport Office who belong to the PCS union is set to intensify from Tuesday 2 May to Saturday 6 May. The walkout by almost 2,000 passport staff, as part of a civil service dispute over pay, pensions and jobs, began four weeks ago.

Since then, the union says: “The number of appointments has been slashed, and the amount of passports issued greatly reduced. New applications have been left unprocessed.”

On the eve of the strike, a Home Office spokesperson said:  “We are working to manage the impact of strike action whilst ensuring we can continue to deliver vital services to the public, with comprehensive contingency plans in place.

“There are currently no plans to change our guidance, which states that it takes up to 10 weeks to get a passport.”

One thousand HM Passport Office support staff, including interview officers, will join the strike from Tuesday to Saturday, after which it is due to end.

Thursday 4 May sees the resumption of walkouts by security staff belonging to the Unite union. Around 1,400 security officers who work for Heathrow Airport Ltd, mainly at Terminal 5, will walk out for three separate periods: 4-6 May, 9-10 May and 25-27 May.

The first strike is at the start of the coronation bank holiday weekend. The second is just after it. The final walkout is planned to take place at the beginning of half-term week for many schools.

The union says: “This will cause inevitable disruption and delays at the airport.” But Heathrow says: “Passengers can expect to travel as normal during the coronation and half-term peaks, regardless of further unnecessary strike action by Unite.”

This time, it does not appear that British Airways is making pre-emptive cancellations – which it did in respect of the previous strike by the same group of workers, which took place from 31 March to 9 April.

On 12 May, the next tranche of national rail strikes begins, affecting rail passengers hoping to attend the Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool.

Staff will stop work at more than a dozen train operators, including all the key long-distance and commuter rail firms. Thousands of trains will be cancelled on each day of the walkouts.

The main rail union, the RMT, has called a strike on Saturday 13 May, the day of the Eurovision final.

Members of the train drivers’ union, Aslef, will walk out on Friday 12 May, Wednesday 31 May, and Saturday 3 June – the day of the FA Cup final and the Epsom Derby.

Aslef has also imposed an overtime ban on eight days between 13 May and 1 June.

Speaking to Laura Kuenssberg on BBC1, the transport secretary, Mark Harper, declined to say when the strikes might be over.

He said: “Fair and reasonable pay offers are on the table. They have been accepted by some aspects of the system. They should be put to the members so that they can vote on them.”

Since the current round of rail strikes began in June 2022, members of the RMT union have walked out on 24 days, with Aslef calling out its train drivers on eight days.

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