Airlines Tell MPs Of Frustration Over Heathrow Border Chaos

Airline and airport operators have rounded on the UK Border Force, saying the recent lengthy queues for passengers entering the country at Heathrow was caused by a failure of officials to predict and respond to peak periods of arriving aircraft.

Their criticisms come amid reports of queues of more than two hours in immigration halls at UK airports. Passengers have been frustrated at seeing many of the border desks unstaffed during these crunch points.

Speaking before the Commons Home Affairs Committee, Corneel Koster, Director Safety & Security for Virgin Atlantic told MPs that there had been problems at Heathrow going back as far as 2010, but "the last few months have been particularly bad."

He said staff cutbacks, a move away from a risk-based security regime and increased passenger figures had contributed to the long queues.

His view was echoed by Andrew Lord, Director of Operations at British Airways, who said there had been a deterioration in queues at the border for the past twelve months.

The change from a risk-based regime was triggered by allegations late last year that proper passport checks had been dropped at the border, prompting the resignation of UK Border Force chief Brodie Clark.

The failure to check passengers identities against watch-lists coincided with a separate move toward relaxing some checks on European nationals, which the Home Office was trialling as a pilot scheme. The row surrounding Brodie Clark, although separate to the pilot, meant the authorised relaxations were stopped at the end of the trial.

Colin Matthews, Chief Executive of airport operator BAA said sometimes the queues couldn't even be measured because they were snaking all the way back to the aircraft passengers were departing from - meaning they hadn't been split up into EU nationals and travellers from elsewhere. He said similar problems had been seen at London Gatwick and City airports.

"The single key issue is having the right number of desks manned according to the flow of passengers," Matthews said. "You can't manage things if you don't have the facts," he added.

Matthews also said the fact the automated e-gates for British nationals with biometric passports were "a frustration" because they didn't operate after midnight.

Responding to reports from committee chairman Keith Vaz that a recent peak period at Stansted had caused huge queues, Corneel Koster from Virgin Atlantic said: "The UK Border Force knows as much about our passengers as we do, 6-12 hours before they come in. We believe that it's possible for the UKBF to plan accordingly and to flexibly adjust.

"There's evidence that queue times have lengthened recently, and before the aircraft takes off the UK Border Force knows everything we know about the passengers."

Immigration Minister Damian Green revealed to MPs they were taking on an extra 70 staff members over the summer - primarily to cover for UK Border Force staff taking holidays after the Olympics were over. He said most of the queues concerned non European Economic Area passengers and insisted that some of the problems were caused by variations in when aircraft landed - suggesting the winds could have an impact on queues.

Green also suggested that the introduction of new mobile teams - which can work on either customs or immigration duties depending on demands in different parts of airport - would play a big role in improving performance.

"The e-gates are getting better, they're not perfect but the more we have, the better it is," he insisted, saying extra gates were being rolled out.