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.

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

The immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, said: “The union’s decision to strike over the festive period is unjustifiable and will ruin the plans of thousands of families and businesses across the country.

“Those intending to travel over strike days should keep up-to-date with the latest advice from operators before making journeys this Christmas.”

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

What sort of mitigation will be in place?

Mr 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.”

And The Times is reporting 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 relatively 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 busy airport 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.

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.”

A spokesperson for Heathrow says: “The Home Office advises that immigration and customs checks may take longer during peak times on strike days, and Heathrow will support Border Force to minimise these impacts with the aim of processing passengers through the border as efficiently as possible.”

But a spokesperson for Gatwick says: “We expect that flights will operate as normal. Additional airport staff will also be made available to help with passenger welfare on strike days.”

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

Not at this stage. Normal cancellation conditions apply. Most flights are expected to operate normally and the majority of Christmas travellers should still reach their destinations.

But if your flight is cancelled by the 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?

The RMT union has announced that more than 40,000 workers across Network Rail and 14 train operating companies will stage a series of walk-outs during December and January.

The industrial action will take 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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