At the very time long passport control queues are being blamed as the root cause of the border control scandal, most registration booths for the technology designed to eliminate such waits have been closed with no sign they are to re-open.
Iris recognition scanners have been introduced at several British airports in recent years to allow regular fliers to skip queues and reduce overcrowding at security gates. Yet despite the very public spat between Border Agency boss Brodie Clark and Home Secretary Theresa May over how and why security checks came to be watered down to ease three-hour log jams for passengers this summer, seven of the nine facilities for new applicants to sign up for the fast-track system are not open.
Three of four offices at Heathrow are closed, as are both at Manchester airport, the solitary one at Birmingham, and one of the two at Gatwick.
Officially the enrolment office at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is still taking new registrants, but it has been reported that the office there has in fact also been closed for the last four months, though the UK Border Agency denied this yesterday.
The scanners themselves remain open. Yet with users of the system being required to renew their records every two years, even the estimated 385,000 current users are threatened by the office closures, meaning the number of people being forced to wait in long queues for conventional passport security is only likely to increase.
A spokesperson for one manufacturer of iris scanners said she was surprised at the news, as there was no question of fault with the technology itself. “The system was working, the people were registering,” she said. “We firmly believe that biometrics allows you to make sure that the experience is best for the passenger but that the border security is also maintained.”
Neil Norman, CEO of Human Recognition Systems, said he believed the systems were not being given the full backing of staff at airports because they were worried they would lead to more job losses.
“I know when the Manchester airport gates have been switched off on a number of occasions because they say they don’t have the personnel, and yet behind it you see a bank of six or eight desk with people sit there who could have operated the automated desks. I think there’s a slight aversion to want to use them because it’s a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas.
He added: “The big trend at the moment is that with government looking to reduce budgets, it’s reasonable that they’re going to want to look at the numbers of immigration staff and how they can turn to technology to automate those processes, one of which is the passport check.”
"We've got to keep our airports open for the Olympics next year and we need to process people really quickly - we cannot afford to see queues at the moment, especially with the investment going on at other airport hubs around the world."
A UK Border Agency spokesperson said: “With electronic passport gates now operating at 15 of the country's busiest airport terminals and available to millions of biometric passport holders IRIS is just one of the options for travellers to securely enter the UK.
“We are currently reviewing the long term future of IRIS, although barriers remain open at all four Heathrow terminals.”