Employees Stranded Abroad

Thousands Of People Were Stranded Abroad Following An Air Traffic Control System Fault

An air traffic control system fault on Monday 28 August 2023 resulted in hundreds of flights been cancelled, meaning thousands of people were stranded abroad and facing long waits for a flight home. The disruption is likely to take a few days to resolve with planes in the wrong place and a backlog of passengers trying to get to their destinations. The disruption may mean you have Employees Stranded Abroad.

The August Bank Holiday is one of the busiest days of the year for air traffic, so the disruption affected thousands of people and will take days for the industry to return to normal.

Whilst the absence isn’t the employees fault, they will likely to feel frustrated and anxious that they have let you down. They may also be worried about personal matters such as pets, children (if they had left them at home or with relatives and travelled alone) or elderly relatives. They may also have booked a shopping delivery for their return and are unable to cancel it. Asking if there is anything you can do to help will reassure them that they are not in trouble, you care about them and you are looking forward to their return. 

My tips below will help you deal with each employee who is affected by the disruption, whether the travel was for work or holiday, in the fairest possible way.

Employees On A Work Trip

With travel disruption ongoing, it may be sensible to sit down and evaluate whether employees really do need to travel abroad for work at this current time. Remote working solutions have become well used in recent years so could offer an alternative solution if travel is not an absolute necessity.

If travel is a necessity, then you will need to acknowledge the risk that employees may become stranded abroad if their travel is disrupted. You’ll need to have contingency plans in place to both help your employee get home and to support them whilst they are stranded. It is likely that you will also need to continue to pay them whilst they are stranded if the only reason that they travelled in the first place was for business related purposes.

Employees who have been working abroad for business, may be able to continue to work remotely whilst they wait for their travel to be rearranged and disruption resolved.

Make sure you have a good business travel insurance policy in place. Ensure that your employees are aware of this and any financial support they may be entitled to if they do become stranded (e.g., meal allowances, accommodation costs etc).

Initially contact your employee and ask them to let you know about any activities or meetings they will not be able to participate in. This will help the team pick up the urgent work.

Employees On A Personal Holiday

If employees are on a personal holiday and experience disruption to their travel meaning they are unable to return to work as expected, then they should follow your normal absence reporting procedure. They should explain they are delayed, the reasons for this and the expected return date or if they don’t have one what the airline and they themselves are doing to get back to the UK. Having this information means that as an employer you can, where possible, take steps to cover their absence.

Given the mass delays, the airlines may be unable to provide assistance to all passengers, meaning your employee may be left to make their own arrangements to return to the UK. In these circumstances you may offer the employee some financial assistance to enable their return quickly and may even offer to make the arrangements for them. They can repay you in instalments through payroll deductions or as a lump sum when the airline refund their expenses. Some airlines issue guidelines on what counts as reasonable expenses, so check this before going ahead with any bookings.

If your employee fails to return to work as expected and have not let you know they will be delayed, you should take the initiative and try to make contact to find out the reasons for this and what is happening. If you have no luck reaching them, treat the absence as unauthorised. Contact me to discuss the next steps.

To pay or not to pay?

Employees who do not turn up for work and don’t have authorisation to be absent are generally regarded as absent without leave, meaning they have no entitlement to pay. But you’ll also want to consider areas such as employee relations and employee wellbeing when making your decision.

Before deducting any pay, invite the employee to a meeting and explore what happened and what actions they took to return to the UK, for instance:

  • When did they find out there was a problem?
  • When should they have returned to the UK?
  • Which airline were they flying with?
  • What action did the airline take?
  • What action did the employee take to return on time.

Depending on the answers you receive to the above questions you will either decide:

  • the employee did all they could to return on time (in which case you may pay them),
  • the employee did all they could to return very soon after their intended date of return (in which case you may pay them for part of the extra time they where absent), or
  • the employee did nothing and simply enjoyed the extra few days holiday (in which case you probably wouldn’t want to pay them).

Where you are not willing to pay the employee, other options to consider include:

Work Remotely

If an employee is able to work productively remotely, then this is also something that could be agreed. If the employee was working abroad when they got stranded then they probably are already equipped and able to continue to work remotely until they are able to return to the UK. However, if they were on holiday, they are less likely to be equipped and have the capability of carrying out their work from abroad.

Holiday Entitlement

Providing an employee stuck abroad has not exhausted their holiday entitlement for the year, they might ask if they can extend their previously booked time off by a few days to cover the time until they can return to work. Whilst the ordinary rules on taking holiday are that an employee must give twice as much notice as the amount of holiday they are seeking to take (i.e., two days’ notice for a one-day holiday), and you have the right to refuse the taking of holiday on specific days, it may be a reasonable compromise to allow an extension of holiday until they can get back to work.

Make Up Lost Time

If you have a flex time policy then this will be easy and the employee may already have a bank of positive hours they can use. However, if they have a negative balance you may be reluctant to let that run any higher.

If working unpaid overtime is an option then you could allow your employee to do this once they return to work. Remember to set a timescale of when the time must be made up, for instance a few weeks or months, depending how much time needs making up and what restrictions apply outside of work such as childcare or second jobs.

Unpaid Leave

If the employee has exhausted their holiday pay, or otherwise does not want to use their remaining holiday entitlement, the employee can take unpaid leave. This would need to be agreed by both parties and this agreement should be documented in writing to avoid any confusion later on.

Combination Approach

You may of course agree a combination of the above: an employee who is two days late returning may choose to take one day as holiday and make the remaining time up. An employee who has no holiday entitlement remaining my choose to make some of the time up and take the remaining hours as unpaid leave.

Disciplinary Action

In the majority of cases, you will be able to find an amicable solution to a situation that is out of the employee’s control. However, there may be occasions where disciplinary action is justified.

For example, an employee who makes no attempt to contact you to tell you their flight has been cancelled until the day they are due back at work, or an employee who travels to another country knowing, before their departure, that their return flight has been cancelled and therefore won’t be back at work as agreed, could be argued to have acted unreasonably in continuing with their travel plans.

Disciplinary action could especially be justified if the employee had gone against advice with respect to travel abroad and the extended absence coincides with a particularly busy working time for your business.

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Employees Stranded Abroad


Kathryn is a highly experienced HR Manager with a wealth of skills and knowledge acquired across a variety of industries including manufacturing, health and social care and financial services. She has worked in small localised business and larger multi sited organisations and is comfortable liaising with senior managers and union officials as well as answering queries from team members. Connect with Kathryn on:

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