During April, it took about three hours for passengers to clear immigration at London Heathrow. It was a situation that left travellers and the industry alike frustrated as the city began to rev up for an influx of Olympians and fans.
Willie Walsh is chief executive of International Airlines Group, which owns British Airways. He told reporters that there had been a “crisis for some time” regarding passport control, which has suffered from undermanned desks and failed iris scanners.
“[Airlines at Heathrow] have demonstrated we are prepared to pay where we get the right service. We are not prepared to pay a government that will waste money and that will not address the problem that is faced … the government is both the regulator and the service provider and is doing an inadequate job in both.”
The number of border staff has been cut by 1,500 as part of austerity measures enforced by the government. Mr. Walsh said that whilst the government said that it was intending to tackle the delays, it was long overdue and government statistics were unreliable.
“The Immigration Minister claimed that the Border Force met its standard for EU passport holders every day for the first 15 days of April and for 11 out of 15 days for non EU passport holders. The latest information available on the Home Office website shows that its statistics are based on a sample size of less than 0.2 per cent of the passengers crossing the border.
“This sample size has no statistical relevance and is completely meaningless. It is also at stark variance with the experience of hundreds of thousands of citizens,” Mr. Walsh said.
A spokesman for the British Airports Authority told the Compass in a statement that immigration was “a matter for the Home Office.” “Immigration waiting times during peak periods at Heathrow recently have been unacceptable and we have called on the Home Office to address the problem as a matter of urgency.
“There isn’t a trade-off between strong border security and a good passenger experience – the Home Office should be delivering both.”
According to the authority’s own data, wait time targets for non-European Union passengers were missed on 75 per cent of April arrivals through Heathrow. Standard maximum wait for passengers from outside Europe is 45 minutes and for European passport holders it is 25 minutes, according to Mr. Walsh.
“Real improvements will need to be based on measures much more robust than the dubious statistics employed in defence of [United Kingdom] Border Force’s performance. The force’s target of 25 minutes to process an EU passport-holder is pathetic and undemanding. The equivalent target for critical security checks is five minutes.
“These delays not only create great inconvenience for individuals, but damage the UK’s ability to do business and have a seriously negative impact on the UK’s reputation overseas. This is not an issue that just needs papering-over for the duration of the London 2012 Olympics. We need a full and permanent solution urgently, and a greater sense that the scale of the issue is understood in Whitehall,” he said in a statement to media.
But according to a statement from the UK’s immigration minister, Damien Green, a proposal to discuss higher charges for airlines to facilitate more staff and quicker transit had not yet been presented to the Home Office.
Responding to the comments by Mr. Walsh, he said that staffing at British airports at peak periods during the Olympics would be increased. He told the BBC that a new rostering system would add flexibility and that “for the Olympic period we are guaranteeing that there will be at peak times full manning across the board.”
In the interim, a control room to deal with queues will be implemented, as would mobile teams at the terminal.
The issue was further exacerbated on Thursday due to 24-hour strikes by the Public and Commercial Services Union and Immigration Services Union who were protesting planned government reforms.
Mr. Green said that in order to minimise disruption, the government used a “trained pool of backroom staff and Ministry of Defence police to boost staffing levels at ports and airports around the UK.”
Report slams planning
Meanwhile, a report on efficiency and effectiveness at Terminal 3, Heathrow’s 2011 operations slammed procedures.
The report was released on Thursday by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, John Vine.
Inspections took place between August and November 2011 and noted that there was 15 per cent fewer staff than 2010. Whilst staff were praised for being “professional and courteous” the report also said that inadequate planning had an impact on “effective and efficient” border control.
“Resources were not matched to demand, management oversight and assurance was lacking in many areas and staff were not always properly trained to undertake their duties,” Mr. Vine said.
“This was far too much organisational change during Heathrow’s busiest time of the year.”
Changes to operations, said Mr. Vine, had meant that fewer employees were on hand when the terminal was busiest and conversely more employees were around when things were quieter. The report also stated that in two thirds of cases, searches were ‘neither justified or proportionate’. Some passengers were arrested despite officers finding nothing illegal during searches.
Damian Green said the report covered a timeframe prior to the March, 2012 split of Border Force and UK Border Agency operations. He said that since then there had been more staff deployed at peak times and “greater flexibility” in manning immigration and border controls.
During 2010, Terminal 3 handled 20.4 million passengers and some 107,000 flights.