Friday 23 March 2018

Heathrow and Gatwick operating at near normal despite British public sector strike

Peter Woodman

PLANE arrivals and take-offs at Britain's two biggest airports were largely unaffected by today's strike.

But the RMT transport union reported "rock-solid strike action" that had led to "a total shutdown of key transport services in north east England".

There were just a few cancellations of inbound transatlantic flights to Heathrow Airport this morning.

But Heathrow operator BAA, and its busiest carrier, British Airways, both reported near-normal services, with queues at immigration no longer than usual.

And at the second-busiest UK airport - Gatwick in West Sussex - the first 22 inbound flights arrived as normal, with departures also running smoothly.

There has been fears that strike action by UK Border Agency (UKBA) staff would lead to chaos at Heathrow, where BAA had asked airlines to fly planes half-full today.

A British Airways spokesman said: "We've had a positive start to the day and queues are pretty much as normal."

It was thought that around two-thirds of UKBA staff were working normally at Heathrow.

A BAA spokesman said: "Due to the effective contingency plans we have put in place with the airlines and the UKBA over recent days, immigration queues are currently at normal levels. However, there still remains a possibility of delays for arriving passengers later in the day.

"As a result of the whole airport community working together over the past few days, we have more immigration officers on duty and fewer passengers arriving than would otherwise be the case. That puts us in a better place to avoid the serious delays and widespread disruption at Heathrow that were projected last week.

"We have deployed hundreds of additional customer services staff within our terminals. They are giving 24-hour support to passengers, providing information, food, drink and children's activity packs. They are equipped with iPads and BlackBerrys to keep passengers up to date."

Gatwick's chief operating officer, Scott Stanley, said: "While passengers have so far not experienced delays at the border zones, we do expect delays to occur at some point today as the rate of arriving flights increases.

"That said, we do have robust plans in place to help keep those delays at the border zones to a minimum. To help avoid overcrowding, we have reconfigured both our airside terminals to provide significantly more space and seating for arriving passengers."

He added that "hundreds of Gatwick staff and volunteers" were providing assistance to passengers.

The RMT said strike action on the Tyne and Wear Metro and on the Shields ferry across the River Tyne was "rock solid".

The union said pickets were out "in force" this morning at the Metro control centre, the ferry terminal and other key points.

RMT Royal Fleet Auxiliary members were also involved in the action and pickets were out at Portland in Dorset, Falmouth in Cornwall and on a joint protest with PCS union members in Portsmouth.

The online private jet booking network,, reported a 74pc increase in European flight searches for today.

Passengers coming through Heathrow airport said border controls were "better than usual".

Debbie Arnell, a 42-year-old apprenticeship assessor from Bournemouth who had flown back to Heathrow's terminal five after a holiday in Philadelphia, said there appeared to be "more staff than usual" at passport control.

She said: "I have used this terminal seven times before and today was better than usual.

"They were even giving out free fruit and water, which they don't usually do. It's almost like they have over-compensated."

Richard Bunkham, a 45-year-old human resources consultant from London, also said queues at passport control had been "negligible".

Mr Bunkham said: "I use iris recognition so don't usually get held up anyway, but you could see that today it was much better than usual."

Asked what he thought about the strike, Mr Bunkham said: "I think the private sector should also be taking action. I would ask for private sector pensions to be upgraded rather than public sector pensions downgraded."

Some major roads in Tyne and Wear were jammed today, with queues on the A167 Tyne Bridge and slow-moving traffic on a number of other routes in the area.

Channel Tunnel high-speed train company Eurostar warned passengers travelling from Paris and Brussels to London to get to their departing station well ahead of time in case of delays.

A Eurostar spokeswoman said: "So far, everything is fine, with no delays or cancellations."

Airport services in southern England seemed to be unaffected, with flights at Luton airport in Bedfordshire and Stansted airport in Essex operating normally. There were also no delays at Manchester airport.

A spokesman for Southampton, one of the BAA-run airports, said: "We are expected to experience minimal disruption. Any disruption is expected to be limited to inbound international flights only, of which there are 12 today.

"All domestic (inbound and outbound) and outbound international flights will be unaffected."

Ferry company P&O reported no disruption to its Dover-Calais services.

"We are operating normally," said a spokesman.

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