Emergency plans to hire 70 more staff at troubled Heathrow were announced by the Immigration Minister yesterday as he acknowledged that the huge queues at the airport may be damaging Britain's reputation abroad.
Damian Green also risked ridicule when he told MPs that the length of time non-European passengers waited to have their passports checked could depend on the direction in which the wind was blowing at the time.
He was speaking as the airport operator BAA took a swipe at the Government, protesting that the delays at immigration controls had worsened over the last two years.
David Cameron has urged his ministers to "get a grip" on the disruption at Heathrow, which has left travellers waiting up to three hours to be admitted into the country.
After Cabinet talks yesterday, the Prime Minister's spokesman admitted it would take "some time" to improve the efficiency of the Border Force, but insisted resources would be found to cope with the influx of visitors to the London Olympics.
Mr Green told the Commons home affairs select committee yesterday that the extra 70 staff were to be recruited by September to cover for immigration officers taking leave after the end of the London Olympics.
Ministers had intended to appoint the officers in 2014, when building work on Heathrow's Terminal 2 is due to be completed, but the plans have been rushed forward to cope with foreign students arriving in Britain for the new academic year.
Mr Green said: "We have brought forward the first wave of recruitment for the reopening of Terminal 2 to give the border force even more flexibility to secure the border while dealing with record passenger numbers at Heathrow."
The committee chairman, Keith Vaz, told him that UK airports received poor ratings from travellers compared with international competitors and asked whether Britain was suffering "reputational damage" as a result of Heathrow's problems. Mr Green replied: "It's a worry for the Government."
But the minister also said some of the causes of delays were beyond the power of any organisation to tackle. "That will depend on the wind, over which, with the best will in the world, airlines and the Border Force don't have the control," he said.
Mr Green also called for better information on passenger numbers from airlines, saying that three times more than expected arrived at Heathrow on Monday morning. "The general point is that the earlier and the better the information the Border Force can have from the airlines, the more likely it is the right numbers of people will be at the right desks at the right time," he said.
Earlier, however, Colin Matthews, the BAA chief executive, said passengers started noticing in the summer of 2010 that delays were worsening.
"We've seen a steady deterioration over the last two years. I've the impression that the Border Force need to develop their capability in planning."
Collins enters airport war of words
Joan Collins took to the internet to vent her anger at the Home Secretary, Theresa May, over being caught in queues at Heathrow yesterday after arriving on a flight from Los Angeles.
"Arrived LHR after great trip on British Airways but 1,000s waiting at passport control – listen up Ms. May – need more officers!" she said on Twitter.
Troubled times: Border Authority woes
8 Nov 2011 Brodie Clark resigns as Border Force head amid accusations he secretly relaxed checks.
20 Feb 2012 Theresa May announces the Border Force is to be split from the UK Border Agency.
Early April Big queues almost daily among non-EU passengers arriving at Heathrow.
30 April Immigration officers flown from Manchester to Heathrow to staff immigration desks.
1 May An 600 extra staff to be drafted in to Heathrow to cope with arrivals for the London 2012 Olympics.
6/7 May Passengers arriving at Stansted report queues of two hours.