Heathrow Border Force strike: What does it mean for your flight?

Hundreds of UK Border Force officers at Heathrow airport are striking for four days over what their union calls “an unworkable new roster system”.

The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union has called the walk-out of members working for UK Border Force over new rosters that it claims “would see around 250 of them forced out of their jobs at passport control”.

Members voted by a margin of 9-1 in favour of industrial action over the issue.

The stoppage, involving more than 300 PCS members, involves UK Border Force offices working on passport control in all four Heathrow terminals.

These are the key questions and answers.

What is the dispute about?

At the root of the dispute is a controversial new rostering system.

The PCS union says planned alterations to shift patterns “would have a detrimental effect on all the current staff and leave nearly 250 without a job on passport control, including many with disabilities or caring responsibilities”.

The union says: “The Home Office have indicated they will no longer accommodate their contractual flexible working arrangements, reasonable adjustments, or ‘legacy’ contractual terms on the new roster.

“There is anger at the rigidity of the new roster with many members saying it won’t work.

“If they refuse to accept the new contracts, they would be forced to seek jobs elsewhere in the Home Office.”

“The strike action comes because of the employer’s failure to enter into meaningful negotiations with PCS, and lack of willingness to offer any movement on their plans.”

Wasn’t a similar strike called off?

Yes. In late March the PCS union told the Home Office it had called a strike from 11 to 14 April – a very busy spell at the end of the school holidays for many families. But in what the union called “a spirit of collaboration”, the PCS called off the walk-out a week before it was due to start.

At the time the union’s general secretary, Fran Heathcote, warned: “This does not end the dispute. It is an opportunity for the Home Office to demonstrate they are genuinely seeking a resolution.”

But she later called the new strike, saying: “The Home Office should be doing all it can to retain experienced, trained staff – not lose them by introducing an unworkable new roster system.”

What are the effects?

Since UK Border Force staff routinely check only arrivals at airports, rather than departures, the initial impact of the walk-out will be on people landing from abroad at Britain’s busiest airport.

The PCS said: “Members are committed to the action and expect that their walkouts will disrupt passport checks for travellers coming into the UK at Heathrow airport.”

But interviews with a sample of travellers arriving from the airport on the Heathrow Express at London Paddington station on the morning of the first day identified no problems with passport control.

Angie, a Delta passenger from Boston, told The Independent: “It was kind of ridiculously easy – no people in front of me. I put my passport down [for the eGate], it beeped and I was through.”

Other passengers told similar stories. But it is possible that travellers arriving at Terminal 4, which has a higher proportion of passengers who cannot use eGates, face longer waits. Heathrow did not give permission to report from the airport itself.

No one is able to predict exactly what will happen at times when there is an unexpected surge in arriving passengers– especially when flights arrive containing a substantial proportion of passengers who need to be examined by officials.

Were large numbers to build up in the immigration hall of one or more terminals, it is conceivable that airlines would be ordered to delay disembarking new flights to avoid overcrowding.

Such an instruction could feed through to delays, with departing passengers unable board those planes on schedule. There could conceivably be cancellations of some departures.

But UK Border Force strikes in December 2022, which took place nationwide, did not have a significant effect.

What does the government say?

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are disappointed with the union’s decision to strike but remain open to discussing a resolution with PCS union.

“The changes we are implementing will bring the working arrangements for Border Force Heathrow staff in line with the way staff work at other ports, provide them with more certainty on working patterns, and improve the service to the travelling public.

“Keeping our borders secure remains our top priority and we have robust plans in place to minimise any potential disruption.”

What mitigation plans does UK Border Force have?

The Home Office may use techniques as deployed during the last walk-out by UK Border Force in December 2022.

Military personnel and civil servant volunteers were trained to replace the staff who normally check the passports of arriving passengers.

They were not able to provide the same level of service. But the hope among ministers and managers is that with many arrivals able to use eGates, excessive waits can be avoided.

In addition, it is possible that new Minimum Service Level legislation could be used to require a certain proportion of union members to work.

The Independent has asked the Home Office for a response.

What are my rights if my flight is disrupted?

Cash compensation will not be payable, because the issue is beyond the airlines’ control. But they have a duty of care to provide an alternative flight as soon as possible, as well as meals and, if necessary, accommodation while you wait.

Are other strikes threatened at Heathrow?

Yes: 50 aircraft refuellers working at Heathrow airport will walk out for 72 hours from 4 May in a dispute over terms and conditions for new staff. They work for AFS Aviation, which refuels aircraft for Virgin Atlantic, Emirates and Singapore Airlines, and belong to the Unite union.

Unite is also calling out firefighters and staff in airside operations, passenger services, trolley operations and campus security from Tuesday 7 May to Monday 13 May.

The airport says it does not expect passengers to be affected.

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