Heathrow Airport has asked airlines to halve the capacity on their incoming international flights on Wednesday – such is the concern about how the airport will be able to cope when immigration control workers don’t show up for work during the UK’s public sector strike mid week.
The UK’s tourism industry could be significantly affected if Wednesday’s strike action is as powerful as the unions are forecasting.
UK Border Agency staff will be among those participating and Heathrow COO, Normand Boivin, has already told the press there may be numerous flight cancellations and long delays at immigration.
Tens of thousands of passengers have already started rebooking their flights to avoid Wednesday’s strike action – Heathrow is warning that travellers entering the major international airport could be delayed up to 12 hours, with queues backing up in immigration halls and planes having to keep passengers on board.
Mr Boivin stated in a letter to carriers, “The delays at immigration are likely to be so long that passengers could not be safely accommodated within the terminals and would need to be held on arriving aircraft. This, in turn, would quickly create gridlock at the airport with no available aircraft parking stands, mass cancellations of departing aircraft and diversions outside the UK for arriving aircraft.”
Meanwhile, BAA who run Heathrow, say it has “reluctantly” concluded that the UK Border Agency will not be able to process the 60,000 passengers that pass through Heathrow’s immigration daily.
Mr Boivin said he was asking carriers to reduce their passenger capacity down to 50% to try to avoid the planes being “diverted to an airport outside the UK and reduce the risk of having an outbound flight cancelled.”
Virgin Atlantic, one of the main carriers operating out of Heathrow, said Britain “cannot afford to be closed for business.” A spokesperson said it was allowing those booked to fly in on Wednesday to rebook and travel up to four days earlier, or later, without charge.
Meanwhile British Airways is offering alternative dates at no extra cost as well. Gatwick is urging airlines to help rebook their passengers on to other flights, however EasyJet is currently not offering passengers any free rebookings, saying “We plan on running a full schedule of flights. Passengers will travel as usual and we will work with Border Agency and the airport on contingency plans.” EasyJet has about 78 international flights arriving at Gatwick on a daily basis.
The UK Border Agency’s website says “robust arrangements are in place to maintain the security of the border ahead of planned strike action”. http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/sitecontent/newsarticles/2011/november/51-30-november-strike
It has been training other staff and contractors to handle border checks, asking staff from overseas posts to provide additional cover on Wednesday and is working with the airlines and port operators to identify potential pressure points.
The website says “The strike will affect border control from the beginning of the evening of Tuesday 29 November until 23:59 on Wednesday 30 November. Starting times will vary as each port has different shift patterns.” It adds that arriving passengers can assist the agency by:
- having travel documents, including passports, available and taken out of any wallets;
- using automatic e-Passport gates (where available);
- having landing cards fully completed and ready; and
- staying in family groups.