Here’s when European airports and trains are set to go on strike this spring

Mar 13, 2023

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2023 is the year we’ve all been looking forward to — the year travel finally got back to its feet.

Now that airlines and airports claim the issues that plagued travellers in 2022 — from post-pandemic staff shortages to flight caps — have at last been sorted, there remains one hurdle that looms large over the travel sector: strikes.

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Why? As the cost of living soars, workers across Europe are demanding pay rises in line with growing inflation. As result, there is currently a wave of industrial disputes across the travel industry, which could mean we’re set for a bumpy few months of strikes, delays and cancellations.

Here’s a rundown of when and where.

NOTE: This page will be updated as new information emerges.

Heathrow strikes / BA cancellations

Some 3,000 employees — including security guards, engineers and firefighters — could down tools over Easter at Heathrow. STOCKINASIA / GETTY

When: from 31 March to 9 April

From Friday, some 3,000 employees working at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 — including security guards, engineers and firefighters — will walk out in a long-running squabble with Heathrow Airports Ltd (HAL) over pay.

As a result, British Airways, the terminal’s primary occupant, has been forced to cancel some 300 flights — about 32 per day.

Heathrow told passengers that, while the airport will remain open on strike days, “the strikes may affect the journeys of some passengers planning to travel during this period.”

“You can check the status of your flight with your airline for the latest information,” it said, adding: “On strike days, passengers will only be allowed to travel through security with two items of hand baggage. Handbags and laptop bags count as a piece of hand baggage. Your allowances for checked-in luggage remain as advertised by your airline.”

In a statement, British Airways apologised for the “small number of adjustments” to its schedule.

“We’ve apologised to customers whose travel plans have been affected and have offered them a range of options, including rebooking onto a new flight with us or another airline, or requesting a full refund.”

Heathrow said it was deploying 1,000 additional staff, alongside its management team, who will be in the terminals providing assistance to passengers over the Easter break.

U.K. Border Force strikes

On 15 March, Border Force staff at airports across Britain will strike in the latest in a chain of walkouts by around 100,000 civil service workers. OLI SCARFF/GETTY IMAGES

When: Friday 28 April

On Friday 28 April, Border Force staff at airports across Britain will walk out in the latest in a chain of strike action by around 130,000 civil service workers. If the last strike on 15 March is anything to go by, up to 2,000 flights could be affected.

And although the U.K. government aims to minimise disruption, it warns that those travelling on 28 April and early the next day should be prepared to face longer wait times at customs.

The latest strike action comes after members from 186 different employers from across the civil service were balloted last week, the PCS union said. “Our members are not backing down in this dispute,” said PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka. “We know our strikes have already caused serious disruption. The new strikes and another national day of action will pile the pressure on a government that refuses to listen.”

U.K. passport office

From 3 April, 1,000 Passport Office staff members will down tools for five weeks. GETTY

When: From 3 April to 5 May

From 3 April, 1,000 Passport Office staff members will down tools for five weeks in an action that could bring up to one million passport applications to a halt.

The PCS union says the walkout will have a “significant impact” on the delivery of passports as the summer approaches.

Nevertheless, HM Passport Office still insists travellers allow 10 weeks for passport applications, even if they are straightforward renewals which normally take around 12 days to process, according to the National Audit Office.

However, at peak times, around 250,000 applications pass through the Passport Office per month. That means April may well see a workload of up to a million applications having to be handled by a skeleton staff. And that doesn’t include any potential surge in applications as prospective holidaymakers panic apply in response to the strike – an issue that sparked a meltdown after Brexit when the British government released confusing information about passport validity dates.

The advice to any British citizen who needs a new passport for the summer is to apply immediately to give yourself the best chance of getting it back on time.

Ground staff strikes in Spain

Delta Air Lines Airbus A330-300 taking off from El Prat Airport in Barcelona, Spain. SHUTTERSTOCK

When: 13-14, 16, 20-21, 23, 27-28, 30 March; and 3-4, 6, 10-11, 13 April.

Ground staff working for Swissport Handling at 17 airports in Spain are in the thick of a coordinated strike action taking place every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday until 13 April.

The affected airports are:

  • Madrid-Barajas
  • Barcelona-El Prat
  • Reus
  • Alicante
  • Valencia
  • Murcia
  • Málaga
  • Almería
  • Salamanca
  • Valladolid
  • Burgos
  • Logroño
  • Zaragoza
  • Huesca
  • Lanzarote
  • Gran Canaria
  • Tenerife Sur airports.

However, the leading low-cost airlines from the U.K. – easyJet, Jet2 and Ryanair – are not involved. Vueling and passengers on other carriers could be affected.

A spokesperson for Swissport said: “A comprehensive contingency plan is in place to limit disruptions to our airline customers and passengers travelling via Spanish airports.

“We remain fully committed to reaching an agreement with union representatives and our staff, that will be acceptable to our colleagues while also preserving the stability and health of the company and offering attractive jobs in the Spanish aviation sector.”

U.K. rail strike

When: 16, 18, 30 March; Saturday 1 April

On 22 March, the RMT union suspended the planned strike by its members at Network Rail for the above dates after reaching a pay deal with the operator.

However, while that offered some respite from the onslaught of action that’s hit the rail network over the past year, the strike will still go ahead for RMT members working at 14 other train companies.

They are:

  • Chiltern Railways
  • Cross Country Trains
  • Greater Anglia,
  • LNER,
  • East Midlands Railway,
  • c2c,
  • Great Western Railway,
  • Northern Trains,
  • South Eastern
  • South Western Railway
  • Transpennine Express,
  • Avanti West Coast,
  • West Midlands Trains
  • GTR (including Gatwick Express)

This means while the walkout may not “shut down” Britain’s entire train system as seen during previous strikes, large swathes of the network will grind to a halt on strike days.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “We will continue our campaign for a negotiated settlement on all aspects of the railway dispute.”

German airport strikes

When: TBC

German airport workers have already unleashed a wave of walkouts this year, causing havoc to timetables and forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights.

This happened most recently on Sunday and Monday (26/27 March). The result was the cancellation of hundreds of flights at eight major airports across the country, including Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg. The German airport association said the strike “went beyond any imaginable and justifiable measure”, estimating about 380,000 air travellers would be affected.

In response, Lufthansa decided to ground all of its flights until March 28. In a statement, the airline advised travellers to not go to the airport unless they have a confirmed booking for a flight.

Related: Hundreds of flights cancelled in Germany as European airport strikes continue to bite

“A labour struggle that has no impact is toothless,” the Verdi leader, Frank Werneke, told the public broadcaster Phoenix. He acknowledged it would inflict pain on many commuters and holidaymakers, “but better one day of strain with the prospect of reaching a wage agreement than weeks of industrial action”.

As negotiations trundle on in that dispute, no new strike dates have been set, but it remains a space to watch for anyone planning a trip to Germany in 2023.

French air traffic control strikes

Air traffic control strikes don’t only affect planes landing in or departing in the country where they’re happening, but planes using its airspace as well. GETTY

When: TBC

These are potentially the actions that could affect more travellers than any other this year. That’s because air traffic control strikes don’t only affect planes landing in or departing in the country where they’re happening but planes using its airspace as well.

EasyJet last month revealed that 65% of its flights use French airspace to reach their final destination, meaning any of those could run into disruption if French air traffic controllers go on strike.

Indeed, the strikes reportedly led to 30% of flights being cancelled across the country when French ATC workers walked out from 6-9 March, affecting tens of thousands of passengers.

Related: Ryanair and easyJet pre-emptively cancel flights due to French ATC strikes 

And while no dates are set for the summer as yet, Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said in January that the French ATC strikes risked “shutting everybody down” if the dispute over pay and recruitment levels bleeds into summer.

His comments came as Europe’s air traffic manager, Eurocontrol, warned of potentially “huge challenges” to the commercial aviation network this summer. Citing “a backdrop of supply chain issues, possible industrial action, airspace unavailability, sector bottlenecks, rising demand and system changes”, it said: “2023 is set to be the most challenging year of the last decade. Keeping summer delays down will be an immense task.”

Bottom line

The one thing worth remembering when it comes to strikes is that nothing is in stone until it happens. There is always the possibility that unions and employers will reach a deal.

However, the economic crisis is making things difficult for everyone, from workers struggling to survive the deepening cost of living crisis to travel companies desperate to appease shareholders after a ravaging pandemic. As we gear up for an even busier year than last, those pressures on either side of the fence seem unlikely to evaporate any time soon.

The chances of more strikes this year are high across the travel sector, a trend that could result in thousands of cancellations and lengthy delays.

The best advice is to keep an eye on these dates and plan accordingly.

Click here for tips on obtaining a refund from airlines sooner than later, and keep checking this page for new updates.


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