Border Force strikes: Will it affect my travel plans and what can I expect at the airport?


Christmas travellers could face chaos at Britain’s airports after Border Force officials announced plans to stage an eight-day strike over the busy festive period. 

The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union announced that its Border Force members will walk out for four days over Christmas – from December 23 to 26 – and four further days in the run-up to the New Year – from December 28 to 31.

The unwelcome news for holidaymakers could mean lengthy queues and delays at the border, and possibly cancelled flights. It rounds off a year of misery at Britain’s airports, where passengers have been forced to grapple with six-hour security queues, scores of cancelled flights and lost-luggage pile-ups. 

Here we run through everything you need to be aware of if you are flying this Christmas, plus details of the Eurostar and rail strikes which could also scupper festive holiday plans. 

Which airports will be affected?

The airports due to be hit by the industrial action are Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow. The impact is set to be significant as the 1,000 striking Border Force members account for around three in four frontline staff checking the passports of arriving passengers.

The Government has said that automated e-gates will remain operational throughout the strikes for those with biometric passports, which should ease disruption somewhat. Those eligible must be British citizens or nationals of an EU country, Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland or the US.

However, even though most UK arrivals will be able to use the speedy e-gates, a fear is that arrival halls will become so crowded that passengers will be forced to wait on planes in an attempt to ease congestion. In an effort to avoid chaos, 600 military personnel and a raft of civil servants have been put on standby to cover for the striking workers.  

It’s worth noting that the scale of the disruption will likely differ on various days. Data from flight analytics company Cirium has predicted that Heathrow will see its peak of inbound passengers on the first day of the strikes. Gatwick’s most hectic days, meanwhile, will be December 23 and 30, with Manchester’s busiest on Boxing Day. 

Will my flight be cancelled?

There is a possibility that some flights might be axed to prevent huge border backlogs. The Telegraph reported yesterday that airports and airlines are “braced for up to 20 per cent of flights being cancelled depending on how effectively the military can take over.” 

Manchester Airport has already announced that it expects cancellations. A spokesperson said: “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.”

However, Gatwick has struck a more positive tone: “We expect that flights will operate as normal and remain in regular contact with Border Force about their mitigation plans.

“Additional airport staff will also be made available to help with passenger welfare on strike days.”

Even if their flights go ahead, passengers can expect lengthy queues, which have defined the post-pandemic airport experience for many. A Heathrow spokesperson said yesterday: “The Home Office advises that immigration and customs checks may take longer during peak times on strike days.

“Passengers are advised to check their flight status with their airline before travelling. We encourage all parties to resolve this dispute quickly.”

Consumer watchdog Which? has urged airlines to keep passengers abreast of any changes to their flights. Travel editor Guy Hobbs said: “Strikes by Border Force staff will be a huge worry to travellers, with thousands now anxious as to whether their Christmas plans could be left in ruins if flights are cancelled as a result.

“Airlines affected should work quickly to inform passengers of any potential changes to their booking because of strike action, and must not fail in their legal responsibility to offer travellers a refund or the option to be rebooked, including with other airlines if necessary.”

Find advice on what to do if your flight is cancelled, here

Could upcoming rail strikes impact my festive travel plans? 

A raft of rail strikes could also throw festive travel plans into disarray. Nationwide RMT strikes are due to take place on December 13, 14, 16 and 17. Further action will take place from Christmas Eve through to December 27. While no trains typically run on Christmas Day and few services on Boxing Day, the surrounding days will likely see widespread chaos. Passengers should also note that on the days following the strikes, timetables will only be operating at around 60 per cent of normal. 

Those heading across the Channel for the holidays should also be aware of upcoming Eurostar security staff strikes. The RMT union members will walk out on December 16, 18, 22 and 23, which could mean huge queues and cancelled services. 

For more information on strike action, see here

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