Passengers flying into the UK from Friday face the prospect of long queues at the border as passport officers begin eight days of strikes over Christmas.
UK government officials have warned people to expect disruption and have drafted in the military to help arriving passengers through immigration during one of the busiest travel periods of the year.
The strikes by passport officers in the PCS union will hit six of the UK’s busiest airports: London’s Heathrow and Gatwick; Birmingham; Cardiff; Glasgow; and Manchester, as well as the small Port of Newhaven in East Sussex.
The industrial action will take place between December 23 and 26 and then again between December 28 and 31.
Electronic passport gates will remain open as normal, and departing passengers are not expected to be caught up in the problems.
Airport and airline officials expect longer queues at immigration, but are cautiously optimistic that most arriving travellers will not suffer exceptional disruption.
The industry has spent the past month working with the government on setting up contingency plans. Military personnel will be joined by volunteers from within the Civil Service at immigration, while airlines flying into Heathrow, the UK’s busiest hub, have capped ticket sales to passengers arriving on strike days to keep numbers manageable.
Still, the strike represents the biggest challenge for the industry since the summer, when hundreds of thousands of passengers were caught up in severe disruption for weeks as companies struggled to recruit enough staff to handle the return of mass travel after pandemic border restrictions.
The potential problems come as the UK’s Christmas getaway also faces disruption from more train strikes.
Passengers have been warned to only travel “if absolutely necessary” on Christmas Eve, as the RMT transport union begins another three days of industrial action.
Infrastructure manager Network Rail said trains would finish at about 3pm on Saturday, with some last trains departing in the morning and some locations having no services at all.
Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, said the union was causing “needless misery” for passengers, who face disruption every day until January 8.
The RMT will also walk out during the first week of January, when services will again be severely disrupted.
A union overtime ban will cause problems even on non-strike days.
On Wednesday Transpennine Express — which has been cancelling hundreds of services a week despite already suspending part of its timetable due to driver shortages — warned passengers against using its services in the north of England at all, as a result of “significant” internal planning issues.
Chiltern Railways, which covers from London to the Midlands, has asked passengers not to travel on December 27 and 28, while South Western Railways will be operating a reduced service over the next two weeks.
The AA has warned that unreliable train services will push more drivers on to the roads and has issued traffic warnings for Friday and Christmas Eve.
“As thousands of people plan to travel to visit family and friends, it is disappointing that the railway can’t offer a reliable option,” said Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus.
Additional reporting by Jennifer Williams in Manchester