The busiest day of the winter so far at many UK airports coincides with the start of eight days of industrial action by UK Border Force staff at Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Cardiff airports.
Members of the Civil and Commercial Services Union (PCS) who normally check passports will strike from December 23 until the end of the year, excluding December 27. UK Border Force personnel will also be calling at the port of Newhaven in East Sussex on the same dates.
Almost two million passengers have been booked to fly to the affected airports during the stoppages. Could their festive flights be disrupted – and what are airports and airlines saying?
These are the basic questions and answers.
What is the strike about?
“Wages, pensions, jobs,” according to PCS. General secretary, Mark Serwotka, says: “Like so many workers, our members are struggling with the cost of living crisis. They are desperate.
“They’re being told there’s no money for them, while they watch ministers hand government contracts worth billions of pounds to their mates.”
Home Secretary Suella Braverman said: “It is very sad that they have taken this decision to strike at potentially critical times in the lead up to and after Christmas and the New Year.
When exactly does the strike start and end?
The union says simply: “PCS members employed by the Home Office for passport control will take action at London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow airports on 23, 24, 25, 26, 28, 29 and 30 December and 31.”
Actually the strike is slightly more subtle. The independent understands that UK Border Force staff will walk out for three days on December 23-25, with officers who would normally sign up for the night shift meaning the strike will be in effect until 7am on Boxing Day. A three-day repeat on December 28-30 will be in effect until 7am on New Year’s Eve.
What will the effects be?
Passengers on Britain’s biggest budget airline, easyJet, are being warned: “We have been advised that queues at passport control can be in excess of two hours for all passengers arriving in the UK at Gatwick Airport, Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester”.
The Home Office says: “Those entering the UK should be prepared for possible disruption.”
The Home Secretary warned: “There will be undoubted, serious disruption caused to many thousands of people who have holiday plans.
“Ultimately I’m not willing to compromise on border security, that’s the number one priority.
“That may well have a negative impact on people’s comfort, frankly, whether it’s the time they have to wait for flights or departures, it may well delay arrivals and various travel plans.”
Ms Braverman also urged travelers to reassess their travel, saying: “I really want to urge people who have plans to travel abroad to think carefully about their plans because they could be affected.”
What could possibly go wrong?
The nightmare scenario is that long queues could form at passport control, resulting in passengers being held on planes instead of disembarking and increasing crowds at arrivals.
Aircraft usually turn around to depart between 30 minutes and two hours after arrival. If inbound passengers are still on board, outbound travelers will not be able to board. Crowds would build up in the departures area and the airport could run out of gates for flight arrivals – possibly causing cancellations and diversions.
What contingencies are there?
The Home Office, which runs the UK Border Force, says: “Military personnel, civil servants and volunteers from across government are training to support the Border Force at airports and ports across the UK in the event of a potential strike.
“Border Force is ready to deploy resources to meet the critical demand and support travelers flowing through the border.”
Servicemen and women are deployed under the policy of “military assistance to civil authorities” (Maca). It applies when “there is a definite need for action”, after discounting “other options” and when “the urgency of the task requires rapid external support”.
Airports work with some airlines to reduce pressure on arrivals. For example, British Airways flights to London Heathrow have been withdrawn for arrivals on 23-25 and 28-30 December. However, other carriers are still selling flights, with Emirates offering seats on all six arrivals from Dubai to Heathrow on December 23, as well as flights to Gatwick, Birmingham and Glasgow, but not to Manchester.
Will eGates work?
Yes. These gateways check a passenger’s facial biometrics against the data encrypted in the passport. They are open to travelers aged 12 and over who are British or citizens of the EU (and the wider Schengen area), USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore or South Korea.
Some people find they can get through the eGates smoothly, while others say they often experience problems. Travelers should remove hats, headphones and face masks to minimize the delay.
What do airports say?
“The vast majority of journeys will not be affected [but] Passengers arriving at Heathrow on strike days who are not eligible to use eGates may experience longer waiting times at Border Control.’
“We expect flights to operate as normal during this period. Passport checks may take longer than usual.”
“We will continue to operate our full flight schedule. Passengers do not need to change their travel plans unless instructed otherwise by their airline. There is a possibility that waiting times at the border will – at times – be longer than usual these days and we will do everything we can to ensure that passengers’ return to Manchester is as smooth as possible.”
“Flights will operate as scheduled.” The airport says arriving passengers should “expect a slightly longer wait than normal during peak hours”.
“There is no indication that the planned industrial action will have a significant impact on our operations. Glasgow Airport will also bring in additional support staff on the proposed strike days to ensure any disruption is kept to an absolute minimum.”
“All departing flights will not be affected. Some arriving passengers may experience a slightly longer wait at passport control.”
Will arrivals from other airports in the UK, Ireland, Channel Islands and Isle of Man be affected?
No. These locations are within the passport-free Common Travel Area.
I’m booked to fly on a strike day and prefer not to take the risk. What are my options?
Most airlines and holiday companies say normal cancellation terms apply, but the UK’s two biggest carriers are offering flexibility to passengers booked to fly to target airports on the days of the main strike.
“Customers traveling on/between 23-25 December and 28-30 December, whose final destination is London, or who have booked a connecting ticket as part of their journey to another airport in the UK or Ireland, can change their travel dates and rebook a British Airways flight up to 14 days earlier or later than the original date of travel, subject to availability.
“Customers wishing to do this should call us on 0344 493 0787.
“Customers who have booked through a travel agent should contact their agent directly to discuss options.”
“Our team will be happy to offer you some alternative options, such as changing your flight dates free of charge for 14 days either side of the strike dates or providing a flight voucher for the full value of your booking.” To take advantage of these options, please contact the easyJet Customer Service Center on 0330 551 5151.