Fears passengers could be held on planes during UK border force strike

Union boss spells out 'worst-case scenario' when more than 1,000 staff at passport control go on strike on Friday

Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5A, arrivals concourse, September 2018
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Border Force strikes latest: : Almost two million air travellers told to expect delays

Air passengers have been warned to brace for disruption at major UK airports on Friday as hundreds of border force staff walk out.

More than 1,000 passport control workers who are members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union will strike over a dispute about pay.

The strikes will affect Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow airports between Friday and next Monday and again from December 28 to 31.

Thousands of flights will land at the airports on those strike days, affecting up to 2 million passengers.

It is understood passengers could wait for hours in passport control queues, or held on aircraft, under airport plans to manage the disruption and limit overcrowding.

Lucy Moreton, professional officer with the The Union for Borders, Immigration and Customs (ISU), whose members voted against calling a strike due to the potential effect on national security, said UK media reports that passengers could be stuck on the tarmac for hours while terminals cleared were a worst-case scenario.

The effect of the strikes could turn out to be a “damp squib”, she added.

“There is no way to know what the impact will be,” she said.

“Previous experience with PCS strikes have been that very few people do answer that strike call. It’s not been massively effective. But this is different in that it’s over the festive period.”

You do not have to be a member of the calling union to withdraw your labour on the strike day, said Ms Moreton, which means members of the ISU could join the walkout.

But the action must be staged at locations where the strikes have been called.

“Some of ours may not work,” she said. "Some of ours may be dual members. We have no way to know.2

A source involved in discussions told The Times: “Border Force are talking about moving staff around the country but it is a very busy period

“Delays of two hours at the border are being routinely discussed in meetings. If everything backs up, or anything [such as e-gates] fails, then airports will have to instruct that passengers are held on planes to prevent overcrowding.”

Friday’s strike will be the culmination of a week of protest action across the UK, with nurses, ambulance drivers, postal, rail and bus workers all set to walk out over disputes about pay.

Airport officials are said to be most concerned about the second wave of action after Christmas, which has the potential to affect returning holidaymakers.

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Ms Moreton said: “PCS on their own figures have a maximum of 1,000 staff in border force and 3,000 military trained, not adequately in our view, but it’s entirely possible it’s going to be a complete damp squib, I am afraid. It might be very limited.

“I am worried it could be nothing. It’s a wasted opportunity.”

Airlines have stopped selling tickets on those days.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said the government could stop the strikes “tomorrow” if it puts money on the table.

“Like so many workers, our members are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis” he told The National. "They are desperate. They are being told there is no money for them, while they watch ministers giving out government contracts worth billions of pounds to their mates.

“Some sections of the media have accused us of playing politics with these strikes. Let me be clear: our dispute is with the employer.

“We will fight to improve our members’ pay, terms and conditions, regardless of who is in Downing Street.”

A representative for Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, said the "vast majority" of travellers would be unaffected by the latest strikes.

"We are doing everything we can to protect a full flight schedule on strike days, so departing passengers should expect to travel as normal.

"Arriving passengers with UK, EU, US, Canadian and some other passports will be able to use e-gates as usual and their journeys should be largely unaffected on strike days.

"Border Force has contingency measures to ensure other arriving passengers are cleared safely and as quickly as possible. We are continuing to support them to strengthen these plans so that as few people are impacted as possible. If passengers who cannot use e-gates are concerned about travelling during the strikes, their airline may be able to offer them alternative travel dates."

The government has said requests for wage increases by striking workers are “simply not affordable”.

Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Dowden used the example of nurses seeking a 19 per cent salary rise.

“I’d love to give nurses an enormous pay rise,” Mr Dowden told the BBC. “The reason why we’re not doing this is because our duty is to everyone — public and private sector — to make sure we have stability in our public finances.”

Other sectors from rail workers to postal delivery staff and bus drivers have also been protesting for higher pay as inflation holds above 10 per cent.

Updated: December 23, 2022, 7:52 AM