As the busiest travel week of the winter begins, travellers by air and rail face cancellations, delays and disruption. After a weekend of bad weather wrecked the plans of thousands of airline passengers, impending industrial action could cause more damage.
The Unite union has called a 48-hour strike by 1,500 Swissport ground staff on Friday 23 December and Christmas Eve at 18 airports across the UK.
Also on 23 December, pilots working for Virgin Atlantic will begin an indefinite work-to-rule in a dispute over union recognition.
Unite has also called a strike of British Airways cabin crew who work for the airline’s Mixed Fleet operation at Heathrow for 25 and 26 December.
Lots of travellers have got in touch with The Independent to ask about the possible effects on their trips. This selection is in travel date order …
Q I'm going to Copenhagen tomorrow, returning 22 December. Any perceived issues ? Hand luggage only on easyJet.
You will not be affected by any of the aviation disputes, but if you happen to be flying from Gatwick and are planning to travel by train, bear in mind that Southern Railway is warning of “severe disruption” due to a series of strikes and an overtime ban by drivers. Gatwick Express services could also be affected.
Q What happens if the baggage handlers strike, please? My 84-year-old mother is travelling alone on 23 December and can’t carry her case.
The planned strike by ground staff working for Swissport on Friday 23 December and Christmas Eve will not affect the majority of passengers flying to and from the UK on those dates. For there to be an impact on your mother’s travel plans, she must be travelling with an airline that uses Swissport at the airport from which she is booked. At the UK’s two busiest airports, there will be only a limited impact. Virgin Atlantic uses Swissport at both Heathrow and Gatwick, and in addition Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Swiss are all Swissport customers.
Swissport handles a wide range of airlines at Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle and some other UK airports. I have compiled a list that is as complete as I can make it, which appears at the foot of this article.
If your mother’s flight is affected, and she is unable to carry her luggage herself because of her age, she is entitle to care at the airport right through to the aircraft.
You need to request this through your airline at least 48 hours in advance, so I suggest you do so even though the strike and its impact are not yet certain. Search online for the name of the airline and “special assistance” for details of how to do this.
Q We are due to fly to Austria from Edinburgh on Friday for a skiing package holiday. We have already paid extra for carriage of our skis and need a reasonable amount of gear with us for a week’s skiing. If we were told we could not take checked baggage it would not be acceptable. Would we have the right to cancel our holiday if “hand luggage only” is the rule on Friday?
Ryanair, the most prominent UK customer of Swissport, told me: “Our flights may operate with hand-luggage only” if the strike goes ahead. Other airlines may do the same. What does that mean, exactly? Well, Ryanair won’t say if it will relax its normal cabin-baggage allowance of one reasonable sized bag and a second, smaller bag. I expect it will do so, to allow many passengers to cope with the temporary change of policy. But the limiting fact then becomes: what will the airport’s security team allow through the checkpoint? And while you could probably sneak a snowboard through, skis are banned.
Because you have booked a package holiday, your tour operator has a duty to find a reasonable solution. That could well include paying for you to hire boots, skis and poles locally. While that would be inconvenient and annoying, I think it would be a fair solution to an unfortunate problem.
Q On 23 December my wife and I fly back from Lanzarote to Bristol with Ryanair. I paid extra to be able to take two suitcases as checked in luggage to go into the hold. Now with the strike approaching, is there any chance of receiving our suitcases in Bristol? If not, what kind of obligations are there from Ryanair?
You, and others who are currently abroad, are in the trickiest position of all: you have what you have in the Canaries, and need to get it all back. At this stage it is impossible to say what will happen. However, no ground staff are on strike in Lanzarote. In addition, unloading a plane and taking all the bags to the carousel is an easier operation than loading the jet. So my best guess is that resources — non-striking baggage handlers and stand-in management — will be applied to inbound flights, and you may notice nothing more than perhaps a slight delay on arrival.
If I am wrong, then there will be options for sending bags home by courier, but this is likely to cost considerably more and also be an unwanted faff. It is possible you could try to claim any extra back from Ryanair, but I cannot say for sure if such a claim would be successful.
Q After wanting to go to Russia for 35 years I am finally going to St Petersburg for Christmas 2016. However, our return flight on 26 December is with British Airways’ Mixed Fleet, and our tourist visas expire on that date. Do you know if it is possible to get an extension on our visas to allow us to travel back on the 27th?
BA says all flights are going ahead as normal, so your afternoon flight from St Petersburg to Heathrow should not be affected. If the flight is cancelled — for whatever reason — then it is likely that the airline will try to find you a connecting flight on one of the many other carriers, from Finnair to Lufthansa, that serve St Petersburg.
Should that not be possible and you end up overstaying your visa, it is likely that immigration staff will be accommodating; usually, in the event of disruption, allowance is made for departures that are involuntarily delayed.
Q I am flying to Miami on Boxing Day with Virgin Atlantic. Is my flight likely to be disrupted?
Not according to Virgin Atlantic. From 23 December, pilots working for Virgin Atlantic will begin a work-to-rule in a dispute over union recognition. The Professional Pilot’s Union (PPU), which represents most of the airlines’s 900 pilots, say they will work “strictly to contract”, which could involve refusing to be flexible in the event of disruption. So if there is no impediment to the normal operation of the flight, the dispute will not be relevant. But if, say, weather causes delay of several hours, then your trip could be. Under Civil Aviation Authority rules, pilots can exercise their discretion to extend a “Flying Duty Period” by up to three hours. Equally, they can reasonably choose not to extend their hours, and the aircraft remains at Heathrow. Having said that, Virgin Atlantic assures customers: “We are taking actions to ensure our flying programme remains unaffected during this period and want to reassure our customers that all flights are operating as normal.”
Q If my flight is disrupted because of a strike, do I get compensation?
No. Passengers whose flights are cancelled are entitled to meals and accommodation until the airline can get them to their destinations; cash compensation is not payable for delays caused by strikes.
Main airlines handled by Swissport at major UK airports, in alphabetical order
This list should not be regarded as gospel; I have compiled it from a range of sources and it is as accurate as I can make it.
BA, Thomas Cook, Thomson
easyJet, Jet2, Ryanair, Thomas Cook, Thomson
Aer Lingus, Air France, easyJet, Emirates, Jet2, KLM, Monarch, Qatar Airways, Ryanair, Thomson, Wizz Air
Air France, easyJet, KLM, Ryanair, Thomson, Wizz Air
Aer Lingus, Flybe, Ryanair, Thomas Cook, Thomson, Wizz Air
Flybe, Ryanair, Thomas Cook, Thomson
Flybe, KLM, Ryanair, Thomson
easyJet, Emirates, KLM, Ryanair, Thomas Cook, United, Virgin Atlantic, Wizz Air
SAS Scandinavian Airlines
British Airways, Flybe, Monarch, Ryanair, Thomas Cook, Thomson
Aer Lingus, easyJet, Flybe, Ryanair, Thomson, Wizz Air
Air Canada, Delta, Etihad, Monarch, Norwegian, PIA, Qatar Airways, Ryanair, Singapore Airlines, Thomson, United, Virgin Atlantic
Aer Lingus, Air France, Emirates, Jet2, KLM, Ryanair, Thomas Cook, Thomson
Pegasus, Ryanair, Thomas Cook, Thomson