UK border control strikes threaten Christmas travel chaos to and from Spain

 Friday, December 9, 2022 

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Travellers arriving at the UK’s biggest airports over the Christmas period could face severe delays entering the country and even risk having their flights cancelled as a result of strike action by British border force staff.

The planned strike action would take place from December 23rd until December 26th and then from December 28th to New Year’s Eve.

The UK’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman warned travellers heading to and from the UK over Christmas and New Year to expect severe disruption and to rethink travel plans if strike action goes ahead.

A senior UK Border Force official told Britain’s in newspaper that travellers can expect long queues at the airports affected by the strikes. They are looking at similar waits as when they had all the Covid protocol issues in summer 2021 when queues of 10 to 12 hours were not unusual.

Passengers should also expect flight cancellations due to staff shortages, they added, so should keep in touch with their airlines before travel.

The government has been preparing for the strike by training 600 soldiers to check passports. Reports have claimed up to 30 percent of flights could be affected if strike action goes ahead.

The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) has voted for strike action over pay and conditions from December 23rd until the end of the year, with the exception of December 27th, that will affect all major UK airports.

The walkouts threaten to ruin Christmas travel plans for thousands of people coming from around the world, including Britons who live in Spain hoping to return home for the festive period, perhaps for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as those wanting to enjoy a warmer Christmas break in Spain.

British media outlets estimate that as many as two million passengers have booked to fly in and out of Britain over the Christmas period on at least 10,000 flights scheduled to arrive at the affected airports.

Where are the walkouts?

Around 1000 Border Force staff are set to walk out from all of the UK’s busiest airports, including Heathrow (Terminals 2,3,4 and 5), Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff, and also the port of Newhaven.

The strikes will fundamentally affect passport checks for arrivals into Britain, as 75 percent of passport control staff are PCS union members.

Christmas is already one of the busiest travel times of the year, and walkouts from border staff are likely to cause severe delays and cancellations.

Some British media outlets are even reporting that passengers could be left to wait on their planes on the runway, something that would then have a knock-on effect on other incoming flights.

Though passports aren’t usually checked on outbound flights, arriving aircraft often turn around and set off on their next outbound journey within an hour or two.

If queues for arrivals become so bad that passengers are kept on the runway, outbound flights will be delayed and departures could be cancelled.

A Home Office spokesperson said in a statement that passengers should be prepared for potential disruption.

Various affected airports have made preemptive statements expecting major delays and cancellations.

A Heathrow spokesperson said that 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 they added.

The British Transport Minister, Baroness Vere, has said that “the government does have mitigations in place,” which is thought to include army personnel and volunteers filling in for the striking staff.

Travel to and from Spain

The border walkouts will affect travellers from across the world, but could hit those travelling to and from Spain particularly hard as there’s such a significant British population in Spain and UK-Spain flight routes are some of the busiest in the world.

Exact figures vary slightly, but by December 31st 2021 there were 407,628 UK nationals officially living in Spain, according to figures from Spain’s Migration Ministry. The latest data from Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE), however, states that there were 282,124 Brits registered in Spain in 2021, more than 100,000 fewer than the Migration Ministry’s figures.

This may be explained by the fact that INE primarily uses local census information from the town halls (padrón address registrations, birth, deaths, and so on) rather than migration documents.

Nonetheless, it’s safe to say there’s likely tens if not hundreds of thousands of British citizens wanting to return home for Christmas, or host friends and family in Spain for a sunnier festive season.

Major airports such as Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester welcome tens of incoming flights from Spain a day, and others such as Birmingham and Glasgow welcome several a day from across Spain.

If there are delays in the UK, there could be a ripple effect (or last minute cancellations) in Spanish airports, particularly those with multiple daily departures to Britain such as Madrid, Barcelona, Alicante-Elche, Las Palmas, Lanzarote, Málaga, Ibiza, Murcia and Palma de Mallorca.

In 2020, the Barcelona-London Gatwick flight route ranked in the top 10 busiest international routes in the world, with almost 2 million seats available that year, according to data from the Official Airline Guide (OAG).

To compound the travel chaos, several airline strikes have also been called for this winter, mainly involving low-cost airlines Vueling and Ryanair.

Ryanair baggage handlers and on-the-ground staff have also been striking and will continue to do so until January 7th, 2023.

What if I have flights booked?

As the strike action has just been announced, normal cancellation rules still apply (for now) so don’t cancel your flight just yet.

If your flight is cancelled by the airline, however, as is expected for many carriers in the coming weeks, your regular rights will apply, including the possibility of being flown via another route, even on another airline if necessary, and hotels should be provided if you are kept overnight.

However, it is worth noting that as Christmas is a peak travel period anyway, finding extra seats as flights are cancelled to soften the impact of the strikes may be difficult.

It remains to be seen if, when, and how many flights will be cancelled. Cancellations are expected by all major airports, who have advised that passengers check the status of their flights before travelling.

For those who are set on travelling, expect severe delays at passport control, and keep an eye on the status of your flight in the coming weeks.

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