Passport queues at Heathrow – what went wrong and will it be fixed?

Passport queues at Heathrow – what went wrong and will it be fixed?
The fact that the UK has the most tangled red tape for arriving travellers was not a factor in the long weekend queues

It’s been one of the busiest weekends of the year at many UK airports – with holidaymakers returning home from destinations in the Mediterranean and beyond. There was particular pressure on London Heathrow, with widespread reports of long delays while waiting for processing by UK border force.

So what is going on, and how does the near future look for travellers? I spent Monday morning at Britain’s busiest airport, Heathrow.

What are passengers – and staff – saying?

On the arrivals screens at Heathrow Terminal 5, the many British Airways holiday arrivals of Sunday evening – from Mediterranean islands such as Santorini, Mykonos and Ibiza – have been replaced by business locations such as Copenhagen, Berlin and Geneva.

Passengers arriving at Heathrow (LHR) are reporting shorter queues for passport control than many returning holidaymakers suffered at the weekend.

One traveller from New York told The Independent that arrivals with UK or European Union passports were able to clear the UK Border in a few minutes.

But other nationalities are facing longer waits.  A student arriving from Hong Kong on British Airways said she had had to wait two hours – but praised the politeness of UK Border Force staff. “It’s not easy to be nice so early in the morning,” she said.

A member of airline staff told me on Sunday: “Queues huge in LHR Terminal 3 today. Immigration hall full and (controlled) lines back in two directions.” A British passenger coming in from the US reported a 90-minute wait, though others who arrived later in the day say that queues were not unduly long.

On Friday night, arriving passengers reported five-hour waits and passengers fainting, with some travellers stuck on planes for over an hour after arrival because there physically wasn’t room.

And in the middle of a pandemic, being jammed in with hundreds of other passengers is a health risk in itself.

What are the targets for waiting time – and whose responsibility is it?

For British and European passengers, the “service level agreement” that Heathrow airport has with UK border force is for almost everyone –95 per cent of passengers – to be through passport control in 25 minutes. For other nationalities, the time is 45 minutes.

It is not the responsibility of the airport nor the airline you flew in on (unless they happen to have messed up schedules and a whole bunch of flights have arrived at once). The service responsible is UK Border Force, part of the Home Office. Heathrow says that in 2020, Border Force failed to achieve its target in six of twelve months of the year.

Is the chaos down to the additional Covid rules and paperwork?

No. The UK has by far the most complex red tape in Europe for arriving travellers. Arrivals must have a certificate showing a negative coronavirus test before being allowed on a plane (or a train or a ferry) to the UK; a pre-booked, post-arrival PCR test; and a completed passenger locator form.

But that complexity is outsourced to the airlines at airports from which the flights to the UK are departing. Accounts indicate that Covid paperwork is not routinely checked.

Because the responsibility for checking documents is handed to the operator (on pain of being fined if someone is wrongly flown in), all that needs to happen on arrival in the UK is an identity check.

So what went wrong over the weekend?

The main problem was very simple: not enough of the desks were staffed, and queues built up swiftly.

Heathrow airport’s management has complained of “unacceptable queueing times in immigration due to too few Border Force officers on duty.”

Were there an unexpectedly high number of arrivals?

No. The airlines supply the airport and UK Border Force with predicted numbers so they can provide resources accordingly. Over the weekend, the main problem was the age of the arrivals.

As the summer holidays drew to a close for families in England and Wales, British Airways brought in dozens of flights from holiday airports, particularly in the Greek and Spanish islands.

Those planes were full of families with under 12s – who aren’t allowed to use the ePassport gates. These automatic gates use facial recognition technology to check your identity against the photo in your passport.

What does the airport and Border Force have to say about it?

Heathrow insists: “Border Force were aware of the extra demand from families and we are very disappointed that they did not provide sufficient resource. We need every immigration desk to be staffed at peak times.

The Home Office has long said: “Throughout the pandemic we have been clear that queue times may be longer as we ensure all passengers are compliant with the health measures put in place to keep the UK public safe” – in other words, if you’re travelling abroad during the Covid crisis you’re going to have to put up with it.

But what’s different is the admission: “The very long wait times we saw at Heathrow were unacceptable.”

What will change?

The Home Office says: “Border Force is rapidly reviewing its rosters and capacity and flexibly deploying our staff across the airport to improve waiting times.

“We are all committed to making sure all passengers can have a safe and hassle-free journey.”

An airline staff member said: “High-ranking Border Force officers actually spotted out of their offices, albeit scratching heads.”

From this week onwards queues should be much shorter because children are going back to school and the passenger profile will once again be mainly adults who can use the ePassport gates.

The next pinch point will be the return from the half-term holiday in late October, with the biggest crowds expected on Saturday 30 and Sunday 31 October.

Is it a particular problem at Heathrow?

It appears to be – there have been a few reports of long waits at Manchester and earlier this summer, at Gatwick, but on my trips through these and other gateways the process has been smooth and swift.

There have also been concerns about delays in departing Heathrow. What’s that about?

Mostly it is because ground staff are seeking to check passengers’ details and documents for dozens of different countries – and it’s a slow process.

Previously there was a special “visa check” desk for people leading to destinations in Russia, India, China and the like, but now your details have to be closely scrutinised for pretty much every destination in Europe – adding a huge time penalty to the operation.

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