The busiest day of the winter so far at many British 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 Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union who normally check passports will strike from 23 December until the end of the year, with the exception of 27 December. UK Border Force staff will also strike at the port of Newhaven in East Sussex on the same dates.
Almost two million passengers are booked to fly into the affected airports during the stoppages. Could their festive flights be disrupted – and what are the airports and airlines saying?
These are the key questions and answers.
What is the strike about?
“Pay, pensions, jobs,” according to the PCS. The general secretary, Mark Serwotka, says: “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.”
The home secretary, Suella Braverman, said: “It’s very regrettable that they have made this decision to potentially strike over critical times in the run up and following Christmas and New Year.
When exactly does the strike start and end?
The union says simply: “PCS members employed by the Home Office on passport control will take action at London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow airports on December 23, 24, 25, 26, 28, 29 and 30 and 31.”
In fact the strike is slightly more nuanced. The Independent understands that UK Border Force staff will walk out for three days on 23-25 December, with officers who would normally sign on for the night shift meaning that the strike will have an impact until 7am on Boxing Day. A repeat three-day action on 28-30 December will have an impact until 7am on New Year’s Eve.
What will the effects be?
Passengers on Britain’s biggest budget airline, easyJet, are warned: “We’ve been advised that queues at passport control could be more than two hours long, for all passengers arriving into the UK at Gatwick, Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester airport.”
The Home Office says: “Those entering the UK should be prepared for potential disruption.”
The home secretary warns: “There will be undeniable, serious disruption caused to many thousands of people who have holiday plans.
“Ultimately I’m not willing to compromise on security at the border, that’s the number one priority.
“That may well have an adverse impact on convenience for people, frankly, whether it’s the time they have to wait for flights, or departures, they may well be delayed on arrivals and various travel plans.”
Ms Braverman also called on travellers to reassess their journeys, saying: “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 could possibly go wrong?
The nightmare scenario is that long queues for passport control could build up, leading to passengers being held on planes rather than disembarking and adding to the crowds in arrivals.
Aircraft typically turn around to depart between 30 minutes and two hours after arrival. If the incoming passengers are still on board, outbound travellers will not be able to board. Crowds would build up in the departures area, and the airport could run out of gates for arriving flights – possibly triggering cancellations and diversions.
What contingencies are in place?
The Home Office, which runs the UK Border Force, says: “Military personnel, civil servants and volunteers from across government are being trained to support Border Force at airports and ports across the UK in the event of potential strike action.
“Border Force are ready to deploy resource to meet critical demand and support flow travellers through the border.”
Servicemen and women are being 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”.
Airports are working with some airlines to limit the pressure on arrivals. For example, flights to London Heathrow on British Airways have been taken off sale for arrivals on 23-25 and 28-30 December. But other carriers are continuing to sell flights, with Emirates offering seats on all six arrivals from Dubai to Heathrow on 23 December, as well as flights to Gatwick, Birmingham and Glasgow, but not to Manchester.
Will eGates work?
Yes. These gates check a passenger’s facial biometric against the data encrypted on the passport. They are open to travellers aged 12 or above who are British or citizens of the EU (and wider Schengen area), the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore or South Korea.
Some people find they can get through the eGates smoothly, while others say they often encounter problems. Travellers should remove hats, headphones and face masks to minimise delay.
What are the airports saying?
“The vast majority of journeys will be unaffected [but] passengers arriving at Heathrow on strike days who are not eligible to use eGates may experience longer wait times at Border Control.”
“We expect flights to operate as usual during this time. 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 advised otherwise by their airline. There is a likelihood that waiting times at the Border will be – at times – longer than usual on these days, and we will provide whatever support we can to ensure passengers’ arrival back into Manchester is as smooth as possible.”
“Flights will operate as scheduled.” The airport says arriving passengers should “expect a slightly longer wait than normal at peak times”.
“There is no indication the planned industrial action will have any 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 be unaffected. Some arriving passengers may experience a slightly longer wait at passport control.”
Will arrivals from other UK airports, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man be affected?
No. These locations are within the passport-free Common Travel Area.
I am booked to fly on a strike day and would rather not take the risk. What are my options?
Most airlines and holiday companies say normal cancellation conditions apply, but the UK’s two biggest carriers are offering flexibility to passengers booked to fly to the targeted airports on the main strike days.
“Customers travelling on/between 23-25 December and 28-30 December, whose final destination is London, or those with a connecting ticket booked as part of their journey to another airport in the UK or Ireland, may alter their travel dates and rebook onto a British Airways operated flight up to 14 days earlier or later than their original date of travel, subject to availability.
“Customers wishing to do this should call us on 0344 493 0787.
“Customers booked via 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 fee-free 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, contact the easyJet customer service centre on 0330 551 5151.