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UK border control strikes threaten Christmas travel chaos to and from Italy

Planned industrial action by British border force staff is threatening to complicate or even ruin Christmas travel plans for thousands of people going between Italy and the UK over the festive period.

UK border control strikes threaten Christmas travel chaos to and from Italy

Travellers arriving at the UK’s biggest airports over the Christmas period could face severe delays entering the country and even risk having their flights cancelled as a result of strike action by British border force staff.

The planned strike action would take place from December 23rd until December 26th and then from December 28th to New Year’s Eve.

The UK’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman warned travellers heading to and from the UK over Christmas and New Year to expect severe disruption and to rethink travel plans if strike action goes ahead.

“If they go ahead with those strikes there will be undeniable serious disruption caused to many thousands of people who have holiday plans,” the minister said. “I really want to urge people who have got plans to travel abroad to think carefully about their plans because they may well be impacted.”

A senior UK Border Force official told Britain’s i newspaper that “travellers can expect long queues at the airports affected by the strikes. We’re looking at similar waits as when we had all the Covid protocol issues in summer 2021 when queues of 10 to 12 hours were not unusual.”

“Passengers should also expect flight cancellations due to staff shortages,” they added, “so should keep in touch with their airlines before travel.”

The government has been preparing for the strike by training 600 soldiers to check passports. Reports have claimed up to 30 percent of flights could be affected if strike action goes ahead.

The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) has voted for strike action over pay and conditions from December 23rd until the end of the year, with the exception of December 27th, that will affect all major UK airports.

The walkouts threaten to ruin Christmas travel plans for thousands of people coming from around the world, including Britons who live in Italy hoping to return home for the festive period, perhaps for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as those wanting to enjoy a warmer Christmas break in Italy.

British media outlets estimate that as many as two million passengers have booked to fly in and out of Britain over the Christmas period on at least 10,000 flights scheduled to arrive at the affected airports.

Where are the walkouts?

Around 1000 Border Force staff are set to walk out from all of the UK’s busiest airports, including Heathrow (Terminals 2,3,4 and 5), Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff, and also the port of Newhaven.

The strikes will fundamentally affect passport checks for arrivals into Britain, as 75 percent of passport control staff are PCS union members.

Christmas is already one of the busiest travel times of the year, and walkouts from border staff are likely to cause severe delays and cancellations. Some British media outlets are even reporting that passengers could be left to wait on their planes on the runway, something that would then have a knock-on effect on other incoming flights.

Though passports aren’t usually checked on outbound flights, arriving aircraft often turn around and set off on their next outbound journey within an hour or two. If queues for arrivals become so bad that passengers are kept on the runway, outbound flights will be delayed and departures could be cancelled.

A Home Office spokesperson said in a statement that “passengers should be prepared for potential disruption.”

Various affected airports have made preemptive statements expecting major delays and cancellations.

“We expect it will be necessary for airlines to cancel some services on the days impacted by strike action to ensure the number of arriving passengers aligns with lower UK Border Force resources,” a spokesman from Manchester airport said in a statement. “Arriving passengers should also be prepared for much longer immigration queues on strike days, owing to reduced Border Force staffing levels.”

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “The Home Office advises that immigration and customs checks may take longer during peak times on strike days… Passengers are advised to check their flight status with their airline before travelling.” they added.

The British Transport Minister, Baroness Vere, has said that “the government does have mitigations in place,” which is thought to include army personnel and volunteers filling in for the striking staff.


What if I have flights booked?

As the strike action has just been announced, normal cancellation rules still apply (for now) so don’t cancel your flight just yet. If your flight is cancelled by the airline, however, as is expected for many carriers in the coming weeks, your regular rights will apply, including the possibility of being flown via another route, even on another airline if necessary, and hotels should be provided if you are kept overnight.

However, it is worth noting that as Christmas is a peak travel period anyway, finding extra seats as flights are cancelled to soften the impact of the strikes may be difficult.

It remains to be seen if, when, and how many flights will be cancelled. Cancellations are expected by all major airports, who have advised that passengers check the status of their flights before travelling.

For those who are set on travelling, expect severe delays at passport control, and keep an eye on the status of your flight in the coming weeks. 

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TRANSPORT

Costly flights, few trains: What’s travel like between Sicily and mainland Italy?

Sicily may be just a stone’s throw from mainland Italy but getting there and back is not always simple or fast, as Silvia Marchetti explains.

Costly flights, few trains: What’s travel like between Sicily and mainland Italy?

Transport connections between Italy’s largest island region and the main Italian cities are expected to improve in the long run, with the government hoping to use European pandemic recovery funds. But infrastructure investments take years to bear fruit. 

Taking a flight is of course the easiest and quickest way to reach Sicily, where there are three main airports – Palermo, Catania, Trapani – plus two minor ones on the southernmost Pantelleria and Lampedusa islands. But there are mounting ticket costs. 

The recent investigation launched by Italian authorities into alleged price-fixing on flights to and from Sicily during Christmas holidays by many low-cost airlines shows how fliers might have been left with little choice. Unless one is a Sicilian resident with access to privileged fares, the round trip is often costly.

I recently did an online search and found flights to Sicily are still quite expensive, costing roughly 300 euros for a return trip from Rome, even if booked well in advance. And not all Italian airports serve the destination. 

READ ALSO: Trains and planes: Italy’s new international travel routes in 2023

Paradoxically, it is often easier to reach Sicily from a European city such as London or Brussels than from an Italian one, and I often envy foreign friends who quickly find a much cheaper flight than I can from Rome. Others hop on ferry boats in southern France to land in Sicily. 

For those already in Italy, other options are traveling by train or car, which can still be hellish. Even though the A1 autostrada del Sole, the country’s backbone, has been completed, driving down the length of the country takes 12 hours – inclusive of meal and toilet stops – roughly 1,500 kilometers. I did it once, and it is crazy, but it depends on how much one loves driving.

All train connections end in Reggio Calabria or other southern regions, even the high-speed Italo takes 10 hours from Milan to the tip of the boot. The journey by train is less stressful than by car or plane, and costs roughly 280 euros for a round trip from Milan.

Travel to and from Sicily can often turn into a nightmarish odyssey. I’ve spoken to lots of Sicilians and foreigners who often embark on a 24-hour trip to get to Sicily from Rome and Milan. 

I remember once going to Linosa island for the summer holidays and having to take the plane to Palermo, then a long bus ride to Porto Empedocle to catch the midnight ferry, sleeping on a bench and waking up the next morning to stunning volcanic black scenery. I could have taken the plane to sister-isle Lampedusa and then a quick ferry boat, but the air fare was way over my budget. That trip lasted 28 hours, exactly the same amount of time as my past flights to Jakarta from Rome – but with added stress.

The ferry connecting Messina, Sicily with Villa San Giovanni, Calabria. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

The government aims to revive the Messina bridge plan, an idea which has been floating in the air since 1866. I doubt things would change much. Many people would still drive their cars along the bridge rather than take the ecological high speed railway expected to be built on it.

To improve connections, transport must shift from the road to the railway tracks by increasing high-speed train services, as well as ferries, thus curbing CO2 emissions. High-speed sea connections to and from Naples, Civitavecchia, Livorno and other key mainland ports should also be increased.

READ ALSO: Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

The Messina bridge, which I seriously doubt will be built during this government’s five-year legislature, would just end up increasing road traffic. Locals and tourists in Calabria will be tempted to drive their car or motorino just three kilometers to grab a cassata cake in Messina. 

However, the real issue is not getting to and from Sicily, but getting around Sicily once you land there.

I had the chance to meet several Sicilian commuters who travel almost daily from a rural village to Rome, Naples or Milan for meetings. They wake up at three in the morning and return home at 11pm, up to four times a week. 

Island train and bus connections are rather poor so the car is their best option to get to the airport. However, bar the main highways, most Sicilian roads are a work-in-progress or in bad condition.

You never know where a Sicilian road trip might take you. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I happened to experience an ‘adventurous’ road trip once from Catania airport to a tiny village in the province of Caltanissetta. According to the satellite map it was meant to take roughly two hours, but it turned out to be five, and I literally found myself in the middle of the countryside surrounded by sheep and ravines. Not quite the idyll I had dreamt.

Some highways were shut due to maintenance so I had to cut across unpaved rural roads without street lights, or deviate elsewhere which lengthened my trip (ravenous, I took five minutes to stop for a quick cannolo on the way).

It all depends on what degree of adventure travelers are seeking. Distances seem shorter for some foreigners than they do to Italians. Americans in particular and others from non-European Union countries are excited to drive from Milan to Sicily, for they can catch a glimpse of Italy in its entirety, or tour Sicily’s main archaeological sites in eight hours.

But many others I know, because of the poor state of Sicilian roads and regional connections, prefer to fly in and rent cars with drivers to take them to their destinations. 

The future of Sicily’s transport connections must be affordable and more frequent flights, high-speed railways and eco-friendly boats. Not new bridges and even more cars on the road.

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