Warning of UK Christmas airport disruption as strikes escalate

Passengers flying into the UK have been warned to expect disruption over Christmas as passport officers join the wave of strikes gripping the country.

Border Force staff at six of the UK’s busiest airports, including London Heathrow and Gatwick, will walk out from Friday in a row over pay rises as part of a series of strikes from the PCS union.

Steve Dann, Border Force’s chief operating officer, on Wednesday said there were “robust plans” in place to minimise queues, but that passengers “should be prepared for disruption and take action to plan ahead”.

The action will take place between December 23 and 26 and then again between December 28 and 31; around 10,000 flights are expected to land over that period.

The walkout comes as public sector workers including railway staff, nurses and ambulance drivers have all taken part in industrial action this month in protest over low pay rises at a time of high inflation.

Electronic passport gates will remain open as normal, and departing passengers are not expected to be caught up in the problems.

Dann raised the prospect of closing some airports as a worst-case scenario if disruption were to spiral out of control, but he said he had a “reasonable expectation” that government contingency plans would keep borders open and flowing. Industry executives privately dismissed the possibility of closures.

UK government officials and the aviation industry have spent the past month scrambling to prepare plans to keep people moving during one of the busiest periods of the year.

Military personnel and volunteers from across the civil service will be deployed to stand in for striking staff.

Contingency plans also rely on passenger numbers rising to no more than 70-80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

Most airports were already planning to run at around these passenger levels, but Heathrow was instructed to reduce the number of people flying into the airport.

It asked airlines to stop selling new tickets for strike days, while carriers have also offered passengers the chance to rebook.

Industry officials are confident these measures will result in relatively normal operations on strike days. There is the possibility of queues lasting up to two hours at the busiest times, but emergency fallbacks such as keeping passengers waiting on aircraft are unlikely, one executive said.

“I think that with a collective effort by airlines, airports and government we will get through this,” Virgin Atlantic’s chief executive Shai Weiss told the FT last week.

Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye has said the “vast majority” of journeys over the festive period should be unaffected. But given the uncertainty over staff numbers, industry and government officials said they will not know the full scale of disruption until the first planes land on Friday morning.

“Our contingency workforce will not be able to operate with the same efficiency as our permanent workforce and . . . we simply will not know levels of permanent Border Force officers who will report for duty until the day and what the operational impacts might be,” Dann said.

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