Simon Calder issues advice on UK passports, flight strikes and delays

Strikes in France and the UK affecting travel? How safe is Venezuela? And South East Asian highlights

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 05 April 2023 09:03 BST
Top shot: Singapore from the Marina Bay Sands hotel
Top shot: Singapore from the Marina Bay Sands hotel (Charlotte Hindle)

Just over a year ago the UK’s Covid travel restrictions were finally lifted, and everyone hoped that we could pick up where we left off at the start of 2020: making up for lost sunshine, city breaks and adventure.

But the summer of 2022 was characterised by chaos – involving thousands of flight cancellations, many of them at very short notice.

This year, the omens are inauspicious. An estimated 20,000 coach passengers hoping to leave Dover for France over the first weekend of the school Easter holidays faced delays of 12 hours or more at the port due to enhanced post-Brexit passport checks.

As that backlog was being cleared, a five-week strike began at HM Passport Office – with 1,000 members of the PCS union walking out in pursuit of a pay claim; the union leader, Mark Serwotka, says some of the staff are living in “abject poverty”. He added: “In my opinion there will be huge delays in the already 10 weeks that people are supposed to apply for passports, and there will be huge disruption on the fast-track service that people can use when they want to get a passport quicker.”

Yet all the indicators are that travellers are more determined than ever to get away. During two one-hour “Ask Me Anything” sessions for The Independent, Travel Correspondent Simon Calder tackled a wide range of questions.

French air-traffic control

Q: Do you think the French air-traffic control strikes will be resolved soon? I am a bit concerned that (like strikes here in the UK) they will continue to rumble on into the peak summer season

“Geema 10”

A: Unrest in France over President Macron’s proposed pension reforms is being felt way beyond its borders due to air-traffic controllers using their industrial muscle to severely restrict the number of overflights through French airspace.

Flights from Germany to Portugal, the UK to Spain and Ireland to Italy cross France (or, sometimes, take expensive, polluting and time-devouring detours to avoid the troublesome skies). While none of the passengers on board is remotely involved in the debate about raising the French retirement age from 62 to 64, they are all affected by the fall-out. French trades unionists see the effects as causing significant harm to President Macron’s image – as well as the economies of France and other European nations.

There were more flight cancellations in the first three months of this year due to industrial action across Europe than for the whole of 2022. (A cynical person might suggest that last year the carriers were cancelling flights in vast quantities because of lack of resources, and that the number hit by strikes was negligible by comparison.)

The waves of walkouts among French air-traffic controllers are causing havoc for airline schedules. British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair have been grounding flights in response to instructions by the French civil aviation authority to reduce the number of overflights. Long delays have built up, playing havoc with the schedules of budget airlines (who rely on short turnarounds) and BA (which contends with a night-time curfew at Heathrow).

Normally strikes that affect large numbers of travellers are short-lived; even the long and bitter rail dispute that has caused so much havoc in the UK for the past nine months has seen individual days targeted rather than weeks on end. Air-traffic controllers, though, are fully aware of the way their industrial muscle is magnified: more than half of easyJet’s flights touch French airspace. Last week Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, warned that disruption would continue through April.

Given that air-traffic controllers are relatively few in number and relatively well paid, they may well be seen as a good long-term bet for keeping the industrial pressure on and persuading the leader to back down.

Passenger aviation is an extremely complex piece of choreography, dependent upon many different groups of workers to play their part. In western Europe, French air-traffic controllers are arguably the most indispensable of all – and, I predict, will continue to exercise that power.

Q: Do you think the French national strike this Thursday will mean even more flight cancellations than recently, or are the French air-traffic control strikes pretty much the same every day anyway? Do you have any idea when BA are likely to announce any extra cancellations if so? I want to know when my family can actually start looking forward to our holiday rather than constantly making contingency plans just in case?

“Rich 72”

A: British Airways is cancelling at least 32 flights per day on the insistence of Heathrow airport, because of the security staff strike at Terminal 5 – which continues until Easter Sunday. Many of these were scheduled to fly through French airspace, but in addition I am seeing between 16 and 30 extra cancellations per day at present – which may be partly due to French air-traffic control strikes. The three destinations with multiple cancellations on Tuesday – Amsterdam, Glasgow and Stockholm – are nowhere near France. But aircraft delayed across Europe by industrial action may not be able to complete their missions before the landing curfew at Heathrow.

British Airways generally gives as much notice as possible. Of course the airline must get you to your destination as soon as possible, on another carrier if need be, so please don’t fret too much.

Q: Does the French air traffic control strike only affect overflights in France or French destinations too?


A: Looking at the schedules (and cancellations), overflights are significantly more affected by French air-traffic control strikes than flights to, from or within France. Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, says that is because of “minimum service level” legislation that protects Air France.

The only cancellations I saw a week ago at Paris Charles de Gaulle today, for example, are British Airways to and from London Heathrow and Qatar Airways to and from Doha. Compare this with Heathrow, where more than 50 flights were grounded – mainly on BA but also on Iberia.

As you may be aware, there is pressure from airlines on the European Commission to mandate overflights during air-traffic control industrial action. While the carriers’ demands are far fetched – no one seriously believes that, say, Germany controllers would clear flights over France – there may be some action to protect the innocent bystander caught up in this tangle.

Venezuela safety

Q: Is it possible to get to the Angel Falls safety currently?


A: When I surveyed travellers in an online social media poll, the Angel Falls of Venezuela came in third – behind Niagara (Canada/US) and Victoria (Zambia/Zimbabwe) – but ahead of the other South American great, Iguacu (Brazil/Argentina). The Angel Falls beats all other for scale. It is the highest in the world at almost 1km high, including a main plunge of 807m. The location is named after Jimmie Angel, who found the falls while prospecting in the Venezuelan jungle.

I am sorry to say that, although I have hugely enjoyed repeated visits to Venezuela, I have not yet managed to reach Angel Falls. And right now, I have no idea when conditions in Venezuela will be safe and calm enough to travel there.

The Foreign Office warns against travel to Venezuela, “due to ongoing crime and instability”. The official advice says: “Almost all states outside Caracas are experiencing increased crime and instability, including prolonged power cuts as well as water and fuel shortages and a general lack of essential services.”

The US State Department – no friend of the regime of President Nicolás Maduro – warns about murder, armed robbery, carjacking and kidnapping. It advises visitors: “Establish a ‘proof of life’ protocol with your loved ones, so that if you are taken hostage, your loved ones know specific questions (and answers) to ask the hostage-takers to be sure that you are alive (and to rule out a hoax).”

The fragile and dangerous state of the nation is a tragedy for the Venezuelan people. It also means that travel is on scale from foolhardy to unwise, with the once-flourishing tourism industry destroyed.

Once Venezuela is in a fit state to welcome visitors once again, I will be first in the queue. But in the region around Angel Falls I will also watch out for the bothrops atrox snake (also known as the common lancehead), which kills more people in South America than any other reptile.

South East Asia action

Q: This weekend we’re flying to South East Asia (our original honeymoon intention, pre-Covid), on a trip including Singapore, Bangkok, Phuket, Krabi, Kuala Lumpur and Bali. Always a fan of your articles and recommendations if you have any for those places?

Also, any advice on amounts of cash to take versus using Starling cards?

J Taylor

A: Congratulations on your belated honeymoon, and I hope you have a fabulous trip. Recommendations? Very specifically, in Singapore – where I recently filmed – make sure you visit the amazing CapitaSpring Sky Garden, an urban farm on top of a skyscraper. Then head for Changi village and take the short ferry ride across to the lovely island of Pulau Ubin, a splendid appetiser for the joys beyond in South East Asia. You might want to watch my Singapore film for some more ideas.

In Thailand, travel between Phuket – the gorgeous island off the southwest coast – by boat to Koh Phi Phi and onwards to Krabi, on the mainland. Phi Phi is the spectacular archipelago in the Andaman Sea, and location for the controversial 2000 film The Beach. Tragically, it was hit extremely hard by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, and thousands lost their lives. But it remains a location of intense beauty.

More generally, buy the Lonely Planet guides but don’t hesitate to explore “beyond the guidebook”.

Finally, money. Singapore is largely contactless, and so a fee-free card such as Starling or the more traditional Halifax Clarity is very valuable. Kuala Lumpur and the rest of Malaysia are also card-friendly. Once you are in Thailand and (especially) Indonesia, cash remains king. Take clean UK notes in £10 and £20 denominations, and change little and often (to avoid being stuck with surplus foreign currency at the end). Just shop around for the best deal. If you happen to have any US dollars in cash left over from a trip to America, take those – they are even more acceptable than Sterling.

Heathrow hold-ups?

Q: Flying British Airways to Larnaca in a couple of days. There hasn’t been anything in the news about how Terminal 5 is bearing up. I’m sure there used to be a website where you could check the wait time for North and South security online, but can’t find it now. Any ideas?

Adam Creen

A: More than 1,400 staff, mostly working at Terminal 5, have walked out at Heathrow airport as part of a dispute over pay. The strike is set to continue until Easter Sunday. It is affecting only British Airways, which is cancelling dozens of flights every day in a bid to reduce pressure on those security queues you are concerned about.

When you get into Terminal 5 you can look up at the signs that show the pressure – when I was there last Friday, the first day of the security strike, the worst that the North Security search was four out of five “pictogram people,” and South Security two out of five figures.

On the first day – which was probably the busiest of the entire 10-day stretch of the strike – the queues looked short. Even at their worst I am not aware of waits longer than 10 minutes. Frequent flyers (ie members of the British Airways Executive Club with at least Silver status) will be glad of this, because Fast Track security has been closed for the duration of the strike.

In general South Security is almost always quieter, because the Tube, Elizabeth Line and Heathrow Express deliver passengers to the north end of the terminal.

Q: Will the Heathrow strike impact Terminal 2 and 3 flights from Heathrow to the US on airlines other than British Airways? I understand airport travel logistics are not as straightforward. But I am curious how the strike will impact other operations outside of Terminal 5 or British Airways.


A: No, the strike is not even impacting those few British Airways flights that operate from Terminal 3 at Heathrow (the vast majority of BA departures being from Terminal 5).

Chile welcome

Q: Could you give your opinion on when (if ever) the random Covid testing will end on landing in Chile?


A: It’s impossible to say. The Foreign Office says about Chile: “Some people, chosen at random, will be required to take Covid tests when entering the country. If you refuse or if the result is positive, you will have to complete a mandatory five-day quarantine at a government sanitary residence.“

Covid travel restrictions have been weird and irrational for the past three years and there is no reason to suppose they will suddenly become sane. But tourism organisations in Chile will be putting pressure on the government in Santiago to ease the rule that is a deterrent for any foreigners.

With winter approaching in southern Chile at least, all I can do is express the hope that by September – corresponding with spring in the northern hemisphere – the rule will vanish.

UK passport problems

Q: Wondered if I could ask your help about the validity of a child’s passport for travelling to Portugal over Easter? We are due to return from Lisbon on 16 April 2023. The issue date is 10 October 2018, and the expiry date exactly the same, five years later: 10 October 2023.

I thought had plenty of time. But now people are saying that the expiry date isn’t valid and actually his passport expires on 10 July 2023. HM Passport Office, the Portuguese embassy and the airline have all been very unhelpful. Can you help?

Sue M

A: Your son’s passport expires on 10 July 2023, as it says on the passport. Since Brent there must be at least three months remaining on the planned day of leaving the European Union. That means he can travel to and within the European Union up to 10 July 2023. And that is all there is to it.

Tell me who those people are suggesting otherwise and I will urge them to stop spreading falsehoods.

Q: As you can see by my username I worry! My daughter has sent off passport renewal applications today after realising those for her three children will expire before their holiday on 1 August. With the passport office strike are they likely to receive them on time?

A Worrier

A: While any system can have things go wrong, I cannot see any likelihood of a significant delay. I imagine they will be back well before 1 June, let alone 1 August.

Cuba connection

Q: What’s the latest with not being able to get an Esta to visit America if you have visited Cuba? We were in the island in 2017.


A: To the immense relief of tens of thousands of prospective British visitors to the US, two months ago Washington DC quietly U-turned on a punitive sanction against people who have been to Cuba in the decade up to 2021.

In one of his last acts as president, Donald Trump added Cuba to Washington’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism” (SST) just before leaving the White House. The US move was designed to hit Cuba’s tourism industry and deter future visits to the island.

The effect is to prevent British people who have been to the island from using the swift and easy online permit known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation – Esta. Instead, they must apply in person in London or Belfast for a visa, at a cost of $160 (£130).

For months, the US State Department insisted that the Esta ban was backdated to 1 March 2011.

But suddenly US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) started telling UK travellers that the relevant date is now the so-called “designation date” of 12 January 2021.

In any event, many UK visitors circumvented the rule by “laundering” evidence of a visit to Cuba – simply obtaining a new, clean passport. Of course if there is no Cuban stamp in a passport, the only way the US would know if a traveller had been to the island is if they had used a direct flight between the two countries – which British visitors to Cuba rarely do.

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