Army of stand-in workers quashes fears of Heathrow chaos

Passengers entered Heathrow braced for the sight of queues snaking their way around the airport and departure boards coldly telling them that their festive season was ruined.

With concerns that travel problems could run into the new year as 1,000 Border Force staff began the first of eight days of strikes, those travelling through Europe’s busiest airport on the Friday before Christmas were apprehensive.

But many of their worst fears were quashed after ministers made the remarkable step of asking uniformed army personnel to stand in for striking workers.

Lucy Jenkins, 35, from north London, had been anxious about the delays after travelling overnight from Antigua with her two small children. “Any delay is never going to be particularly fun, so we were apprehensive,” she said.

She considered changing her dates, but neither wanted to cut short her holiday nor miss Christmas in the UK, as she is hosting her family.

Jenkins landed to a WhatsApp message from her mother warning of two-hour queues, but was relieved to encounter no such thing. Her family were processed by a Home Office official, but she said 90% of desks were manned by army personnel in uniform.

“We needed to get back for turkey delivery, otherwise it would be a pretty sad Christmas day,” she added.

However, there are five strike days to come after Christmas, with the busiest date for arrivals expected to be 30 December.

Jo Wild, a 57-year-old travel agent from Reading, flew in from Jamaica with Virgin Atlantic and landed on time. “We braced ourselves for long lines and general chaos, however, almost all the e-gates were open, there were still regular staff guiding people into the right channels and we walked straight to an e-gate,” she said.

“There were army personnel seated at the desks, so I guess in the event of passport problems, they were ready. It was our speediest entry to the UK from six holidays this year.”

Wild said she waited an hour and a half to get her suitcase back. “The baggage hall is strewn with left luggage. I have never seen anything like it,” she added.

At Terminal 5, a small crowd of people waited in front of a glittering Christmas tree to give arriving friends and family a welcome hug.

To mitigate the impact of the strikes, two of Heathrow’s main airlines, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, stopped selling tickets on 16 December for arrivals on strike days and offered ticket-holders free date changes.

A BA spokesperson said the airline was “not experiencing significant delays” to luggage or flights. Virgin Atlantic did not respond to an approach for comment.

Rob Pascal, 40, brought his daughter Libby, 13, from Hanover to London for her first Christmas with her family in the UK in three years, due to the pandemic. The pair arrived at noon and were relieved to find the trip was “much better than expected”.

He said: “It was absolutely fine, probably as quick as I’ve ever got through passport control. We saw army personnel manning the passport control desks.”

A Heathrow spokesperson said the airport was operating as normal and that there had been minimal queueing. She said there had been no flight cancellations due to industrial action, despite earlier reports warning that up to 30% of flights could be cancelled.

The spokesperson said the morning peak – when nearly 30,000 passengers passed through the border – had started well, with “virtually zero wait time” in “free-flowing” immigration halls, and Border Force and the military “providing a good service”.

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