Airlines and cross-Channel services are preparing for their busiest weekend since the start of the pandemic, with outgoing and returning holidaymakers expected to increase in numbers at ports which are already struggling to cope with growing demand.
With all parts of the UK now on Easter holidays, passengers have been urged to allow extra time to negotiate queues at the airport as high rates of Covid infections worsen staff shortages check-in and security.
Meanwhile, congestion on the main routes to the Channel is set to intensify as Eurotunnel anticipates increased traffic in both directions and P&O Ferries services remain suspended. Passengers booked with P&O on the Dover-Calais route have been told they cannot travel this weekend because rival operator DFDS, which used to handle P&O customers, is now fully booked.
Airports are redeploying clerical staff with security clearance to frontline roles where possible to help alleviate the chaotic scenes of recent days, particularly at Manchester Airport.
Manchester appeared to be doing slightly better on Thursday, according to passenger reports on social media, but admitted it would be some time before operations were back to normal. A spokesperson said passengers could still face security waits of 60 to 90 minutes in “the coming months”. They advised arriving at the airport three hours before flight departure and asked passengers to ensure they were fully prepared to comply with safety rules on liquids and electrical appliances to minimize delays.
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said this week it would take the airport two months to recruit enough staff and urged the government to help speed up the security clearance of new hires. City police and transport staff will be recruited to help manage queues at the airport owned by local authorities.
EasyJet, which had to cut hundreds of flights this week, said it would preemptively cancel 50 more flights a day over the weekend to minimize disruption. Large numbers of crew remain ill with Covid, affecting services at Gatwick, Luton and Manchester. However, the airline said it would still operate more flights than at any time since 2019 – around 1,600 a day, 300 more than in August 2021.
A higher than normal influx of returning passengers, after last weekend’s peak outbound at the start of most UK school holidays, could also test immigration queues.
A Home Office spokesperson said passengers “may face a longer than usual wait time due to high passenger numbers and as we ensure that all passengers respect the security and immigration measures put in place to keep us safe.” They added, “Border Force’s number one priority is maintaining a secure border, and we will not compromise on that. We are working closely with all UK ports and airports to ensure passengers have the smoothest possible journey, and we will continue to deploy our staff flexibly to manage this demand.
While some companies like Heathrow have avoided direct mandatory layoffs among frontline staff during the pandemic, many people have left the industry in the past two years, and airports are racing to catch up with renewed travel demand after the UK lifted the latest testing restrictions on March 18.
The Airline Operators Association said the increase was welcome but difficult, with staff shortages or absences at every stage of travel. Its chief executive, Karen Dee, said: ‘It’s great to see passengers returning in great numbers after a long period of almost complete shutdown.
“Airports are placing all available staff on the front line, including senior management and others who normally work in different parts of the operation. This means that for most passengers, although the journey through the airport can be burdensome, airports take them on holiday safely.
The Port of Dover has warned of another busy period after much of the city went into lockdown last weekend as drivers sought to avoid queues for cross-Channel departures. Last weekend’s leisure traffic, with 30,000 departing passengers, was three times that of a year ago, the port said.
Operation Brock, the traffic management scheme to deal with post-Brexit congestion, remained in place on Thursday, closing a 23-mile section of the M20 towards Dover to park thousands of queued lorries.
P&O Ferries has said it hopes to resume cross-Channel services at some point next week when it hopes two of its four Dover-based ships will be cleared to sail by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. One ship, the Pride of Kent, was detained last week over concerns about the readiness of its new replacement crew, following mass layoffs last month.
High winds have also affected some services over the past week and freight traffic was halted at the Port of Southampton on Thursday.
The AA said holiday traffic on UK roads would peak on Good Friday and 27.6million car journeys were expected over the Easter weekend.
There will be disruption for people looking to travel by train next weekend as major engineering works by Network Rail and HS2 close the West Coast Mainline between London Euston and Milton Keynes.