“It’s the most wonderful time of the year”: lyrics that seemingly don’t apply if you’re trying to travel anywhere at all this Christmas. Here I do my best to answer our readers’ most burning questions on getting around during the strike-ridden festive period.
UK Border Force strikes
Q: Will departures from Heathrow on 23 December be affected by the passport strike?
A: The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union has announced industrial action by UK Border Force staff from 23 December until the end of the year, with the exception of 27 December. Walk-outs will take place at six airports. These include the three busiest in Britain: Heathrow and Gatwick, serving London, plus Manchester. Also affected will be Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow airports.
The government, airports and airlines are working on contingency arrangements, which will see the army brought in to check passports. However, they will be no substitute for the highly professional and experienced UK Border Force staff.
Initially on the first day, 23 December, only arriving passengers will be affected: checks could take significantly longer. As you know, passports are not checked when leaving the UK, and so in theory there is no impediment to your outbound journey. But Heathrow is a 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.
A Heathrow spokesperson tells me: “Our priority is to ensure passengers get through the border safely and as quickly as possible. 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.”
Q: We have flights booked from Heathrow to the US on Boxing Day in the early afternoon. What, in your view, is the likelihood that departing flights would be cancelled and, if so, is it more likely to be on the day at short notice or cancelled in advance? How much notice might we expect?
A: I would be very surprised (1/10 possibility) if long-haul flights are cancelled at short notice, and quite surprised (2/10 possibility) if they were cancelled with a week or two’s warning. So in your position I would relax.
Q: Are there any circumstances where an airline is not obliged to get you to your destination? I understand that if the fault is with the airline then all sorts of rules kick in such as delay compensation. However if my flight is delayed or cancelled due to industrial action with, for example, UK Border Force delays, is the airline still duty bound to get you to your destination via other routes?
My example would be on an international inbound flight to Heathrow: if delayed significantly as passport control, what would be the situation if we missed our connecting shuttle flight to Scotland?
A: Fortunately from the traveller’s point of view, European air passengers’ rights rules (which have been copied and pasted into UK law post-Brexit) are on your side. The parts offering cash compensation for delays and cancellations apply only when the airline is at fault. But the duty-of-care rules prevail whatever the cause of the problem. They require the airline you were planning to travel with to find you the fastest possible way to allow you to complete your journey.
This assumes that you have booked (for example) Johannesburg-London Heathrow-Edinburgh as a connecting ticket. The airline is obliged to make arrangements for you to travel on a later flight if you miss a connection through no fault of your own. (If they are separate tickets, you are in trouble if the first flight is seriously late.)
The obligation for providing alternative flights to passengers whose connections go awry is actually long established in aviation. Where Europe’s rules differ from other parts of the world is in terms of accommodation and meals. Outside Europe, generally an airline will pay for a room and board only if it is the carrier’s fault. For example, after a technical problem delayed my Avianca flight from the Galapagos, I was given a nice hotel room (the Guayaquil Hilton), dinner and breakfast by the airline.
But when bad weather halts flights in the US, you and your credit card are on your own: at Atlanta airport one day, I was advised when calling around motels to “tell them you’re a distressed passenger”.
In contrast, for airlines of the UK and the EU, there is a strict obligation to provide care for you.
Q: We are due to fly from Manchester to Malaga on the morning of 23 December. Hoping this flight will be relatively unaffected by the strike. However we are due to fly back to Manchester on the afternoon of 29 December and are worried that this flight could be affected. One option we have is to book another flight to Liverpool on 30 December as a backup. What do you think?
A: Don’t pay out for an alternative. It is the airline’s responsibility, not yours. If, though, you are flying on easyJet you can switch the date – but not UK destination – free of charge.
Q: Due to fly into Manchester on 26 December returning from a holiday to Lanzarote. Would you recommend spending money to change this flight or just waiting to see how things go?
A: Definitely don’t change anything. While Manchester is the one airport to confirm that it will have cancellations due to the UK Border Force strike, if yours is selected for cancellation then the airline will have to sort you out (including putting you up in a Lanzarote hotel if necessary). So wait and see what happens.
Incidentally, the boss of Jet2 – which may be your airline – says: “We very much intend to operate our full schedule of flights throughout the festive period, including on the dates when strike action is taking place.
”Our customers have worked hard to make precious holiday plans, including seeing family and friends, over the festive period. Our teams will work tirelessly to make sure we fly everyone to and from their destinations so that they can enjoy those well-deserved holidays.”
Q: My wife is due to fly from Heathrow to Sydney via the US on 23 December at 10.15am. Should she potentially try to re-book a day earlier if possible as a contingency? Alternatively, do you think she should wait for now to see what transpires in the next few days?
A: The latter: wait for now to see what transpires in the next few days. As above, long-haul flights are more likely to be preserved.
Q: Due to fly out of Heathrow early morning (8am) on 28 December. This flight is to Doha then connecting to Bangkok and then onto Krabi. Is it worth changing flights due to disruption or will it be lessened as preceding day (27 December) is not a strike day?
A: I would relax: the first wave of long-haul will be protected, I am sure.
Q: Do you think there is a possibility that the Border Force strike will be extended to airports other than the ones that have already been announced? I am looking at flying from Bristol on 29 December 2022 (and returning once the announced strikes have finished) and am not sure whether to book.
A: In your position I would not worry. I believe the airports were picked on the basis of having a high proportion of PCS union members. If I am wrong in this judgement, and extending the strike to other airports is a possibility, then the stoppage would need to be notified by 15 December.
Rail strike possibilities
Q: Will there be any trains running from Euston on the evening of Friday 16 December?
A: Not after about 5pm – and for more distant destinations, well before that. The last trains will depart London Euston for Glasgow Central at 1.30pm, for Manchester at 3.40pm, for Liverpool at 3.56pm and for Birmingham at 4.23pm.
It now seems absolutely clear that both the RMT union and the government (which is now calling all the shots in the rail dispute) are set on the full campaign of 12 days of industrial action taking its course through the festive season. As a reminder, the affected days are 13-17 December and 3-7 January, plus the strike on Network Rail from 24 to 27 December aimed at wrecking the usual Christmas engineering work.
Q: We are due to travel to Paris on 18 December and home from Disneyland on 23 December, by Eurostar. In addition to the Eurostar strikes that are taking place on both those days, getting to London will be a pain because of the strikes on 16 and 17 December.
Eurostar is saying it expects minimal disruption. I’m thinking it might be safer to reschedule everything as I can do that now without losing money. Do you have any idea how disrupted the Eurostar services are likely to be?
A: I advise you to continue with your plans. Let us start with the Great Britain-wide disruption that is happening from 13 to 17 December as a result of a walk-out by RMT members.
Depending on where you are travelling from, there is a very good chance you will be able to reach the capital without too much stress: frequent fast services are scheduled from the Midlands, the north of England and Scotland to London, as well as on the Great Western Railway from Cardiff, Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth, as well as Southampton, Brighton and the cities of East Anglia.
On my Advent calendar of pre- and post-Christmas travel disruption, the Eurostar dispute hardly features. Members of the RMT union working at London St Pancras as security staff for Eurostar will walk out on four days in a dispute over pay: Friday 16, Sunday 18, Thursday 22 and Friday 23 December.
The dates have been chosen to coincide with what are expected to be the busiest days before Christmas, especially for British passengers heading abroad on trains through the Channel Tunnel. The staff are not employed directly by the cross-Channel rail firm, but through the service provider Mitie.
My expectation is that the dispute will probably be settled in advance, and if it is not then non-union staff and managers will be brought in; there are not the hyper-stringent rules on searches that you would find art airports.
There could be some delays but I do not expect cancellations – except for early and late services on 17 December due to the Network Rail strike in the UK. This will not affect you, so have a wonder-filled time. Your homeward journey should not be affected at all by the strike. Just wrap up warm: I made a pre-Christmas visit to Disneyland some years ago and nearly froze.
Q: I’m flying on 2 January from Alicante to Tenerife with Vueling. I’m worried about potential flight cancellation due to crew strikes, including this date.
How much notice should Vueling give me if they intend to cancel my flight?
A: It could be two weeks, it could be two minutes. But however long it is, the airline has a duty of care to you – to fly you there as soon as possible, and provide meals and (if necessary) accommodation while you wait for the rescheduled flight.
Q: I have booked a flight with KLM from Birmingham to Warsaw via Amsterdam. I allowed 2 hrs 40 mins transfer time. I have now been rebooked me on a flight with 1 hr 45 mins transfer time which I think is too tight. If I miss the connection to Warsaw, what happens?
A: 105 minutes should be just fine. If you unfortunately miss the connection, you will be rebooked and given a hotel room if necessary. Good luck.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies