Heathrow airport: Will your flight be cancelled by summer of security strikes?

Go slow? Signs at Heathrow airport Terminal 5 warn of possible delays at security during a previous strike  (Simon Calder)
Go slow? Signs at Heathrow airport Terminal 5 warn of possible delays at security during a previous strike (Simon Calder)

Passengers using London Heathrow airport will experience “disruption, delays and cancellations this summer” according to the Unite union. In a “a major escalation” of a pay dispute, it is calling more than 2,000 security staff out on strike for 31 days between June and August.

The industrial action at the UK’s busiest airport is timed to coincide with busy family travel dates, including the start of the main summer holidays in England and Wales, as well as the August bank holiday weekend.

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “Passengers can rest assured that we will do everything we can to minimise strike disruption so they can enjoy their hard-earned summer holidays.”

But will your travel plans be scuppered this summer? These are the key questions and answers.

Who is walking out, and when?

More than 2,000 security officers who work for Heathrow Airport Ltd (HAL) will walk out for a total of 31 days in June, July and August. They are members of the Unite union, which has called strikes as follows:

  • June: 24-25 and 28-30

  • July: 14-16, 21-24 and 28-31

  • August: 4-7, 11-14, 18-20, and 24-27

The staff are employed on security search at Heathrow Terminals 3 and 5 and also at airfield checkpoints – this is a unit known as “Campus”.

Terminal 3 is the hub for Virgin Atlantic, Emirates, Cathay Pacific, American Airlines, Qantas and some British Airways flights. Terminal 5 handles most BA operations as well as Iberia.

What will the effect be on travellers?

The aviation analytics firm, Cirium, says a total of 20,163 flights are scheduled to depart from Heathrow on the strike dates, representing more than 4.4 million seats.

Unite says: “The walk-out by workers at Terminal 3 will result in a large number of airlines facing the prospect of disruption, delays and cancellations this summer.

“The extensive walk-outs at Terminal Five will heavily affect British Airways’ summer schedule.”

The other two terminals – 2 and 4 – will not be affected by the walk-outs. Many airlines will be operating normally, including:

  • Terminal 2: Aer Lingus, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and United.

  • Terminal 4: Air France, KLM and Qatar Airways.

What is being done to limit the impact of the strike?

Some straightforward measures are likely to be introduced in order to reduce the pressure on security checkpoints:

  • Airlines allowing passengers to check in cabin baggage free of charge.

  • Extra staff deployed ahead of the security search area to prepare travellers individually: ensuring their hand luggage is compliant with the rules on liquids, and with laptops removed. This should reduce the number of bags being “pulled” for a detailed inspection.

In addition, it is possible that Heathrow may ask airlines at Terminals 3 and 5 to thin out their schedules.

During the first round of security strikes, up to Easter Sunday, BA cancelled over 300 flights to and from its Heathrow Terminal 5 stronghold, at the request of the airport.

What happens if my flight is cancelled?

Under air passengers’ rights rules, you are entitled to be flown to your destination as closely as possible to the original timing.

If the airline that grounds the plane cannot fly you on the same day, but another carrier has space, it must buy you a seat.

In addition you must be given hotel accommodation and meals commensurate with the wait.

Will people returning to Heathrow be hit on strike days?

Only if outbound flights are cancelled or severely delayed as a result of the walk-outs.

Can I change my flight to avoid a strike day?

Not at this stage, though some airlines may allow flexibility closer to departure.

Haven’t we been here before?

Yes. At Terminal 5 there was a 10-day strike from 31 March to Easter Sunday which saw little impact on travellers’ plans.

During that spell, British Airways was told by Heathrow to cancel one in 20 flights. Sales of seats on other outbound flights were blocked.

In a second round of industrial action, in May, no cancellations were made and the airport ran smoothly.

However, the scale of the summer strikes is larger. The addition of Terminal 3 staff to the walk-outs, increasing the number walking out to over 2,000, will stretch the resources that Heathrow’s management can deploy.

Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of the Advantage Travel Partnership, said: “We’re hopeful that recent strikes have shown that the disruption has been minimal, but it doesn’t stop people from worrying and getting anxious.”

What’s behind the dispute?

Pay. The union’s general secretary, Sharon Graham, said: “Unite is putting Heathrow on notice that strike action at the airport will continue until it makes a fair pay offer to its workers.

“Make no mistake, our members will receive the union’s unflinching support in this dispute.

“HAL has got its priorities all wrong. This is an incredibly wealthy company, which this summer is anticipating bumper profits and an executive pay bonanza. It’s also expected to pay out huge dividends to shareholders, yet its workers can barely make ends meet and are paid far less than workers at other airports.”

Heathrow says its shareholders have not had a dividend since before the pandemic and that no pay-out is expected in the current financial year.

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “Unite has already tried and failed to disrupt the airport with unnecessary strikes on some of our busiest days and we continue to build our plans to protect journeys during any future action.

“The simple fact remains that the majority of colleagues do not support Unite’s strikes. There is a two-year inflation-beating pay rise ready for colleagues, if only Unite would allow them to have a say.

“We will continue talks with Unite about resolving this issue.”

Why won’t Heathrow just offer more money?

Compared with the damage the strikes cause, it would arguably be cheaper to increase the pay offer by a couple of percentage points.

But the airport’s bosses are keen to make it clear that they will not be “held to ransom” by relatively small groups of workers. They feel they have made a fair offer of a 10 per cent increase plus £1,150 lump sum.

The union, meanwhile, says that staff at Gatwick and Stansted doing the same demanding job are better rewarded.