Inside the UK’s ‘unprecedented’ travel chaos

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(CNN) — The UK: home to tradition, cozy cottages and Christmas movies. What better place to spend the holiday period than in a thatched cottage like in “The Holiday,” or have a romantic airport arrival channeling “Love Actually”?

This year could be the perfect time for it, too — the normally mild UK has seen snow even in southern England. A white Christmas could be on the cards for the first time in years.

There’s just one problem: getting there. Because although this is the first Christmas since 2019 that the UK has had no Covid-induced travel restrictions, whether it’s a feasible destination this month is another question.

Amid political chaos — the country went through three prime ministers in seven weeks, earlier in the fall — the UK is seeing industrial action on an unprecedented scale.

Strikes have been called for nearly every day of December: for nurses (their first ever strike), health workers, ambulance drivers, postal workers, driving examiners, bus drivers, rail workers, highways workers, baggage handlers and Border Force.

The last five, of course, impact travel.

“This is really serious — it’s a massive issue,” says Rhys Jones, aviation expert at travel site Head for Points.

“There’s nothing routine about the combination or the length of the strikes.”

Workers for the Abellio bus group, which operates across London, are striking from December 16-17 and again on December 24, 27 and 31.

Baggage handler strikes due for December were called off at the last minute.

Baggage handler strikes due for December were called off at the last minute.

Shutterstock

Highways workers will be striking from December 16-17, during the busiest Christmas getaway period of December 22-25, and then again from December 30-31, and again from January 4-7, in various parts of the country. The strike “risks bringing the road network to a standstill,” says the PCS union behind it.

Railway workers across the country started a series of strikes on December 13. They are continuing December 16-17, 24-29, and January 3-4 and 6-7.

Then there’s the big one: Border Force, which controls immigration and checks passports as you enter the UK. Workers for this government department will strike from December 23-26, and again from December 28-31.

And all this while the UK is battered by freezing weather, with roads snarled up by snow, and airports suffering flash closures and delayed and diverted flights due to ice.

The one bright piece of news for travelers: baggage handlers called off their strike a day before it was due to commence, on December 16.

“It’s definitely a bad situation if you don’t take precautionary measures,” says James Turner, CEO of 360 Private Travel, a Virtuoso agency.

“If ever there’s been a time to plan for the worst outcome, now’s the time.”

It is, say experts, a toxic combination stemming from pandemic job cuts, the global cost of living crisis, the UK’s high inflation (thanks in no small part to Liz Truss, its prime minister of just 45 days), and a government that’s refusing to offer concessions to workers.

And that all means that festive travel seems as uncertain as it ever has been.

“I can’t remember a time like this in my lifetime,” says Jo Rhodes, acting deputy editor at consumer group Which? Travel.

“People traveling to be with family over the festive period are likely to be impacted, and it’s really stressful, especially after several years of being separated from loved ones. We don’t know how bad it’s going to be because we haven’t seen industrial action on this scale before.”

Two friends of hers were planning to travel to the UK for a short break — one from Ireland, one from Belgium — but decided against it, because of the strikes.

“Living it daily here you don’t think of it as being that severe, but it does feel that any plans you make are not guaranteed to go ahead if you’re relying on public transport,” she says.

Chaos at the border

The long lines at border control of early 2022 look set to return with a Border Force strike.

The long lines at border control of early 2022 look set to return with a Border Force strike.

Ben Cawthra/Sipa USA/AP

The biggest barrier for those coming from abroad? The border, where immigration officers will down tools over the Christmas period at six major airports — Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow — and Newhaven port.

Suella Braverman, the UK Home Secretary, warned of “undeniable, serious disruption” because of the strikes and urged anyone flying to rethink their travel plans over the holidays.

As a contingency, the government is deploying the army to man immigration desks. Army personnel were watching the border process at Heathrow as far back as December 10, in preparation.

“Military aid to the civil authorities is a longstanding and established process which allows the specialist capabilities of the UK Armed Forces to be utilized to support civil authorities responding to a domestic emergency,” said a spokesperson for the Home Office.

“Maintaining the security of the UK border is our top priority and Border Force will never compromise on security.”

But travelers may need to compromise on timekeeping and comfort.

While the government has advised airlines to cut 30% of flights, no airline has yet done so, and only easyJet is offering affected passengers free rebooking.

“It could go really, really badly,” says Rhys Jones. Delays getting through the border could lead to overcrowding in the terminal, meaning that airplanes could be asked to keep passengers onboard — leading outgoing flights to be delayed, too. From then, it’s a snowball effect.

“Aviation works on planes being in the right place at the right time,” says Jones. “If aircraft are out of position, all of a sudden you have a massive network crisis.” The worst case scenario? “Knock-on effects for days.”

Jones, who correctly predicted that the baggage handler strikes would be called off last-minute, thinks that it won’t be a “total catastrophe,” but he predicts delays. Airlines have not canceled flights so far, and anyone with a biometric passport can use the e-gates. “The main bottleneck will be where you have to see an officer,” he says.

So what should you do if you’re booked to fly in over the Christmas period?

“If you have flexibility, and if it’s affordable, changing your flight means you’re taking less of a risk,” he says. “That said, if the airlines haven’t canceled flights yet, I’d hold fast.”

Jones is flying out of the UK himself on December 28. “I’m just going to see what happens,” he says. “I expect delays, but not a total meltdown.”

Rhodes’ advice is to arrive with plenty of time at the airport, and not to rely on public transport to get there. Travel insurance with cover for delays, or missed flights due to long lines, is also on her Christmas list.

(Not) riding the rails

Rail services have been heavily affected by strikes this month.

Rail services have been heavily affected by strikes this month.

Tejas Sandhu/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

With train travel exploding in popularity, and a good railway network in the UK, you’d think this would be a good time to travel by train.

But no. The rail strikes are so major that they’ll cost the hospitality sector an estimated £1.5 billion ($1.8 billion) in lost earnings as people stay home, according to UKHospitality CEO, Kate Nicholls. That’s the same financial impact as the arrival of the omicron variant had last December.
“This is the worst state the railways have been in in the 30 years I’ve been reporting on them,” says Christian Wolmar, railway analyst and author of multiple books about trains.

The situation was only worse, he reckons, in 2000, after a crash outside London killed four people, injured more than 70, and showed up a horrifying lack of maintenance and accountability within the railway system, which had been privatized in 1993.

Rail strikes in the UK aren’t uncommon, but the current “chaotic state” is exceptional, he says.

“It’s not just the strikes — it’s the fact that the railways are being cut back with reductions in funding, and they’re also in a state of disorganization. They were going to be reorganized but now that doesn’t seem to be happening. The plans are up in the air, and we’ve had three transport secretaries [government ministers] in three months. This strike has gone on much longer than expected, it’s much more disruptive and it seems there’s no end in sight.”

‘The government has antagonized’

The UK rail sector is battling snowy weather while staff strike for better pay and working conditions.

The UK rail sector is battling snowy weather while staff strike for better pay and working conditions.

Maureen McLean/Shutterstock

Wolmar blames politicians, who have lumped together regular pay negotiations with structural decisions about cost-cutting, maintenance and staffing numbers. “The government could solve this if it took a more sanguine view of what could be achieved, instead of mixing productivity deals with sorting out the wage rises,” he says.

“It has antagonized by mixing in a lot of [cost-cutting] demands. It doesn’t need to be this complex — negotiate the pay rise, with the cost of living crisis and inflation. They’re happy with 5-6%.” Inflation in the UK hit a 41-year high of 11.1% in October. Workers had been offered 5% in the first year and 4% in the second, plus a guarantee of no compulsory redundancy until 2025. One union, TSSA, accepted the terms on December 15. The country’s largest transport union, the RMT, has not budged, however.

Unions have suggested the strikes could continue on and off for months, after the government refused to deny scuppering a last-minute deal before strike action began.

“The railway can only be changed very gradually, and needs to be done by negotiation,” says Wolmar. “The damage is that people have been put off using the railways, and it’ll take some time to repair that. Railways are an essential part of infrastructure and the government is acting as if it doesn’t really matter that much, and we can have strikes. The truth is, you can’t. Recognition that the railways are very important is crucial.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson called TSSA’s acceptance of the offer “a relief to the public.”

The railways are 'crucial' to UK infrastructure, says Wolmar.

The railways are ‘crucial’ to UK infrastructure, says Wolmar.

Greg Martin/Mirrorpix/Newscom/Zuma Press

It added: “The tide is turning and it is clear to everyone that this offer is fair and reasonable, giving better pay to workers but delivering vital reforms to our railways.”

Iain Griffin, CEO of Seat Frog, which allows users to bid for cut-price upgrades on trains, calls the strikes’ impact “unprecedented — definitely the worst it’s been in my lifetime.”

“Ultimately, it’s awful for the industry — our recent research shows people are starting to get into cars because of it,” he adds.

“We’re seeing governments across Europe investing in rail, it’s the only mode of transport to achieve our 2030 [climate] goals, yet it’s held back in the UK, because the government, unions and train companies aren’t getting round the table and sorting it. If we want to make this winning for the planet and the economy, we need to get on with the job.”

‘Here we go again’

Rail strikes mean that busy stations have been deserted at rush hour.

Rail strikes mean that busy stations have been deserted at rush hour.

Leon Neal/Getty Images

Could all this affect the UK’s reputation as a travel destination? After all, it was just recovering from Covid chaos and Brexit chaos, making it a tough time to compete with other less troubled destinations.

Turner, who deals with clients from all over the world, says there’s “definitely knowledge of it out there.” He has several hundred clients visiting the UK this month, and his team is working extra hours to create contingency plans.

“It’s a sigh of ‘Oh no, here we go again’ — we don’t need this sort of news to encourage people to travel,” he says.

“I’m sure there won’t be any lasting effect, but in the short term it’s clearly a negative impression.”

Kate Nicholls agrees that it’s already changing habits. “Particularly European visitors, who come over for a weekend, they’ve changed their mind and won’t come,” she says. “It feels like the whole transport system is creaking and it impacts on international consumer confidence that they can come to the UK and get around. We need to get the message out that the UK is still open for business — it might take longer to get around, but it’s functional.”

After a devastating couple of years for its inbound tourism — visitor numbers were down 82% in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic figures, and this summer saw a furore over water companies discharging raw sewage onto beaches — perhaps “functional” is the best the UK can hope for.