Passengers arriving at BAA Ltd.’s Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, on Nov. 30 will have to wait up to 12 hours to clear immigration if a strike by customs staff proceeds, the London field’s operator warned as the government said it will ensure U.K. borders are safe.
Normand Boivin, chief operating officer of Heathrow, wrote to airlines yesterday to ask them to cut loads in half in order to avoid “gridlock.” Gatwick Airport, south of the U.K. capital, has asked airlines to help passengers switch flights.
“Modelling of the impacts of strike action on passenger flows show that there are likely to be very long delays of up to 12 hours to arriving passengers,” Boivin wrote in a letter posted on the airport’s website. Passengers will be forced to stay on planes as queues become too long for terminal buildings and “this in turn would quickly create gridlock,” he wrote.
Unions representing border staff, teachers, health workers and civil servants are planning strikes to protest plans to make government employees retire later and contribute more toward their pensions. Ministers say the move, part of Prime Minister David Cameron’s 80 billion-pound ($124 billion) program of spending cuts, is fair as the more-than 5 million workers who contribute toward public-sector pensions get benefits no longer available in the private sector.
Middle managers at the U.K. Border Agency who were expected to step in to cover for striking colleagues on Nov. 30 have refused to do so because they are angry at the treatment of Brodie Clark, the immigration chief who resigned in a dispute with Home Secretary Theresa May over the easing of passport checks, The Guardian newspaper reported, citing unidentified government officials.
“We have reluctantly concluded that UKBA will not be able to provide a contingency plan to support normal operations,” Boivin wrote. “We will plan for a normal flight schedule, but we are requesting all carriers to reduce load factors on each international flight arriving into Heathrow on 30 November to 50 percent of normal levels.”
British Airways Plc customers due to arrive at London airports on Nov. 30 will be able to change their flights free of charge, the airline, which is still planning to run a normal schedule, said in an e-mailed statement. Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. advised customers not to travel to Heathrow in a statement on its website and said it would waive re-booking fees.
Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. will also allow flights to be changed free of charge, it said in a statement on its website. Easyjet Plc passengers arriving in the U.K. should allow for delays when making onward travel arrangements and all passengers should check the status of their flight before travelling to the airport, the no-frills airline said in a statement on its website.
Eurostar Group Ltd. is expecting little disruption to its rail services between the U.K. and France and Belgium, though passengers traveling into the U.K. may have to queue longer for passport control, a spokeswoman said in a telephone interview.
The U.K. Border Agency, airlines and airports are in talks on contingency plans for the strike, Cameron’s spokesman, Steve Field, told reporters in London today.
“It’s clear that there is going to be an impact on borders at airports and ports and at the very least there are going to be longer queues and people are going to have to wait longer,” Field said. “We’re still working on contingency plans, we’re still gathering information. We will make sure the border is secure.”
Gatwick is working on “robust” contingency plans, Scott Stanley, the airport’s chief operating officer, said in a statement.
“We have had face-to-face meetings with our major airline carriers to discuss contingency plans for the day and have called on them to offer their arriving passengers the opportunity, where possible, to rebook their flights,” Stanley said. “We are determined to make sure that the needs and welfare of all our passengers will be met on the day.”