British airports could be forced to shutter their doors over what is expected to be the busiest Christmas getaway in three years as part of ‘worst case scenario’ contingency planning for Border Force strikes being drawn up between the government, airport operators and airlines.
Steve Dann, the chief operating officer at the Border Force said on Wednesday that the government had an expectation that ‘most’ airports affected by eight days of upcoming strike action by immigration officers would remain open but admitted that this couldn’t be guaranteed.
One of the biggest problems facing contingency planners is simply not knowing how many Border Force workers will actually take part in next week’s walkout. Thousands of frontline staff are, however, expected to take part in the strike, threatening huge queues at the border.
Contingency measures that have already been drawn up include plans to hold passengers onboard arriving aircraft to ease overcrowding in airport terminals. This plan, however, would quickly lead to delays on outbound flights because aircraft are never scheduled to sit idle for long periods.
The British government has also drafted the army and civil servant volunteers to backfill Border Force positions, although there are limitations to the small amount of training they have received.
Heathrow Airport, where government concern is currently being concentrated, remains confident that the “vast majority” of passengers passing through its doors won’t be affected by the strikes. The airport operator is hoping automated immigration e-gates will alleviate pressure at the border.
The Times, however, reported that 10,000 passengers are expected to land at Heathrow before 7 am on the first day of the strike on Friday. Hundreds of those passengers will not be eligible to use the e-gates.
Officials are also worried about e-gate failure rates and the fact that the gates can not be used by families with young children under the age of 12.
Heathrow was forced to admit last week that it asked airlines to stop selling tickets for flights set to arrive at the airport on strike dates. Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic confirmed that they were complying with the request, although many other airlines have not capped passenger numbers.
The PCS union, which represents Border Force workers, has called for two sets of four-day strikes over the Christmas and New Year holidays. Striking immigration officers will begin their first walkout on the 23rd December through to 26th December.
A second walkout between the 28th December and 31st December, however, could prove even more disruptive as thousands of families return home after spending Christmas on holiday.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.