The busiest week of the winter for travel has begun, with millions of people on the move between now and 25 December. But travellers face a wide range of disruption on the railways and in the skies, with strikes, staff shortage and weather combining to create a travel nightmare before Christmas.
This is all you need to know as the race begins.
What’s happening on the railways?
The latest round of national strikes has ended, with disruption continuing through to Sunday evening.
This week rail passengers can expect “disruption as normal”: high winds in southern England have led to speed restrictions on South Western Railway, and the East Coast main line has power supply problem between London and Stevenage.
Apart from that, trains should be running normally in Britain for the next five days, but on Saturday members of the RMT union working for Network Rail will start a 60-hour strike: from 6pm on Christmas Eve until 6am on Tuesday 27 December.
When the strike was announced, the union said it was “specifically targeting engineering works” rather than passenger trains – but that’s not what travellers are finding.
On LNER, the final southbound service from Edinburgh to Newcastle and London King’s Cross is at 8am. Many other train operators are warning that last departures on many routes will leave around lunchtime on Christmas Eve – and will not restarting until late morning on 27 December.
Don’t trains normally shut down anyway on Christmas Day and Boxing Day?
Nothing runs on 25 December, and there is usually very little on 26 December – except on Eurostar, which runs between London, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam and is always very popular with international passengers.
But on Friday night Eurostar said it was having to cancel all 43 of its trains because of the rail strike – wrecking the plans of more than 20,000 travellers. The rail firm says it hopes to run extra services later in the week to try to help those who were booked on Boxing Day.
What about festive engineering work – where are the biggest shutdowns?
Over Christmas and the New Year there’s always widespread engineering work. These are the key locations for planned engineering disruption.
London Liverpool Street
The Greater Anglia terminus will be closed to passengers from 25 December to 2 January inclusive, with complicated journeys involving the London Underground and bus replacement services.
Track renewal work at one of northern England’s busiest stations from 25 to 31 December will cause significant reductions to services as well as longer journey times. On the East Coast main line, LNER will run hourly between London King’s Cross, Newcastle and Edinburgh via an alternative route, with slightly longer journey times.
West Coast main line
Lots of work is taking place between London and Rugby, and on Christmas Eve and 27 December on the Birmingham-Wolverhampton stretch.
As the last engineering works end, the next round of national rail strikes begins. The first RMT national walk-out of 2023 is scheduled for 3, 4, 6 and 7January.
Will there be any flight disruption?
According to the flight data specialist Cirium, this is by far the busiest Christmas in aviation for three years, with more than 5 million people expected to fly out of the UK in the next two weeks. The key date before 25 December is “Frantic Friday”: 23 December. Data shows it is the busiest day before Christmas from eight of the 10 biggest UK airports: Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Glasgow, Heathrow, Luton and Stansted.
Only Belfast International and Manchester are different – their busiest days are Monday 19 December.
What are the issues at Manchester airport?
Earlier this year the northwest airport had issues with ground handling – and this appears to have returned.
On Sunday night Manchester airport issued a statement saying: “We have been made aware of significant staffing challenges faced by Swissport, which is impacting the arrivals experience of passengers flying with the airlines it supports.
“This may result in some delays to passengers being able to disembark their aircraft, and to the baggage collection process, during the course of this evening.
“It is disappointing that – despite assurances to the contrary – Swissport is not able to provide adequate resources during the busiest weekend of the Christmas travel period and we apologise to all passengers who have experienced unacceptable levels of service.
“We have mobilised a Manchester airport support team to keep disruption to a minimum and are seeking urgent clarification on the steps being taken by Swissport to resolve the challenges it is facing.
“We would like to thank the Swissport team currently operating at the airport under such challenging circumstances, and our airport colleagues for their support.”
A spokesperson for Swissport told The Independent: “We apologise to passengers affected by the current disruption. Unfortunately, a combination of the continuing severe weather and staff illness has created some challenges for our teams.
“We understand this is a frustrating situation and we’re working closely with our airline and airport partners to mitigate these issues.”
According to Manchester airport’s website, Swissport handles passengers for 16 airlines, including Ryanair, Singapore Airlines, Tui and Virgin Atlantic.
Is there a UK airport strike?
Yes. Members of the PCS union who check passports at six UK airports will walk out in a dispute over pay, pensions and job security for eight of the last nine days of the year: 23-26 and 28-31 December inclusive.
The airports include the busiest three in the UK – London Heathrow, London Gatwick and Manchester – as well as Birmingham, Glasgow and Cardiff. During the stoppages almost two million passengers are booked to arrive at the affected airports.
Military personnel and civil servants are being trained up to cover for striking staff.
What’s the likely effect?
Home secretary Suella Braverman said: “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.” Military personnel and civil servants are being trained up to cover for striking staff. But be warned: “Passengers should be prepared for their plans to be severely disrupted.”
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 busy airports with constrained space and little slack in the system at the best of times. It is possible that long queues could build up, leading to passengers being held on planes rather than disembarking.
Those aircraft generally turn around to depart in as little as an hour. 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.
What is being done to mitigate strike disruption?
To prevent schedules unravelling, discussions are taking place about pre-emptive cancellations of departures and arrivals to reduce the strain on the system. But assume your flight is going as normal unless you are told otherwise.
Will this 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.