Union issues warning over Heathrow queues plan


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The Independent Online

Government plans to bring in 80 extra staff to tackle unacceptable delays at Heathrow Airport are like "putting a sticking plaster on a serious injury", a union warned today.

As the row grew over the impact on the UK's reputation and ability to deal with the 2012 Olympics, Damian Green admitted the Border Force needs to change the way it operates and said the extra staff would start work this month.

But Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, warned: "Drafting in staff from other areas of an already overstretched agency is like putting a sticking plaster on a serious injury, it will do nothing to stop the inevitable from happening."

Labour said some 1,500 Border Force staff were being cut as the management of Britain's borders drifted "from one shambles to another".

It came as a senior Games boss warned that the delays were damaging the Olympic mission to promote Britain abroad and win business.

But Mr Green said: "The problem is that people, at certain times, on certain days, have to wait too long. We're addressing that problem.

"Border Force need to change the way they operate, we need to work better with the operator BAA and with the airlines, and, as of today, we are instituting some changes as the summer starts.

"During the course of May we're employing 80 more people."

But he denied the problems were caused by the "absolute numbers", saying: "You need the right people at the right time in the right terminal."

A central control room will be established and mobile rapid-response teams brought in, along with new shift patterns, to offer "additional flexibility" to help "cope with the peaks and troughs you can expect to get at any busy airport", he said

Mr Green accepted that some passengers had been forced to stand in line for up to 90 minutes in breach of Border Force targets and pledged action to tackle the problem.

Asked about the potential damage to the UK's reputation, Mr Green said: "I think the key thing is the individual passenger experience.

"We have to ensure the border is secure. Security is the number one priority. But after that we have to make sure that the personal experience is as smooth as possible."

During this summer's Games, all immigration desks at Heathrow and other key ports and airports in the South East will be fully staffed during peak periods, Mr Green said.

But Sir Keith Mills, deputy chairman of Games organiser Locog, told the London Evening Standard: "The damage is being done right now."

Speaking after the Prime Minister met Home Secretary Theresa May for an update on the situation, David Cameron's official spokesman said: "We are seeing some unacceptable queues building up at Heathrow and clearly we need to deal with that."

Asked about claims airlines could be asked to contribute towards the cost of border security, he went on: "Clearly, the Home Office are talking to the airlines and airport authorities and if there are suggestions about improvements that can be made, then clearly we will listen to those."

Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways' parent company IAG, said ministers had previously turned down the offer of airlines paying for extra border staff.

But he indicated that the offer could be repeated should Border Force be able to offer guarantees of a decent service.

At present, BAA must pay penalties to the Civil Aviation Authority if 95% of passengers do not pass through Heathrow security within five minutes and if 99% do not pass through within 10 minutes.

The Border Force passenger waiting-time target for European passport holders is 25 minutes, while for non-European passport holders it is 45 minutes.

"The Government has tried to convince people that we don't have a crisis," Mr Walsh told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"The Government is misleading people. We have a crisis, it has been there for some time and we need urgent action."

Shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle added: "Instead of getting a grip on the shambles at Heathrow, we now discover that the Prime Minister is planning to shift responsibility to the aviation industry.

"There is now a real fear that these additional costs end up on ticket prices, meaning passengers face higher ticket prices as well as lengthy delays.

"It is completely unacceptable for families to pay the price for the Government's incompetence through more expensive holidays and delayed journeys."

Despite efforts by border chiefs to prevent passengers taking pictures of queues, social media sites were full over the weekend with complaints about excessive waits.

London Mayor Boris Johnson is among high-profile figures to criticise the delays at the UK's busiest airport, writing yesterday to Mrs May to demand action.

And Labour forced Mr Green to explain the problems to the Commons yesterday - where he said the reports of two-hour delays were "wild" and that the problem was mainly down to poor weather.

Labour produced figures showing that maximum wait times - of 25 minutes for UK and other EU nationals and 45 minutes for others - had been breached 107 times in one Heathrow terminal in the first half of April.

A spokeswoman for BAA, which operates Heathrow, said: "We welcome the Government's recognition that current queue times at the UK border are unacceptable and that the Border Force needs to deliver a good experience for passengers as well as strong border security.

"We are encouraged by the announcement of additional border resources for Heathrow and welcome the new sense of urgency being shown by the Government to tackle this problem."