Passengers arriving at Heathrow Airport this week endured waits of up to three hours to have their passports checked, official figures showed yesterday – twice as long as the Government previously insisted.
The scale of the disruption emerged as Theresa May, the Home Secretary, met airline chiefs to draw up emergency plans for coping with a threatened one-day strike by border staff next Thursday. They also pressed her to boost staff numbers at Heathrow and to reintroduce risk-based passport checks. According to figures from the airports operator BAA, border staff repeatedly failed to hit targets for processing non-European travellers during April.
The figures will increase pressure on ministers, who have been accused of storing up problems for the quality and speed of border checks by driving through staff cuts. BAA's figures for April showed the target of checking 95 per cent of non-European visitors within 45 minutes of arrival was missed several times at each Heathrow terminal during the month.
The worst delays occurred last Monday at Terminal 4, where passengers waited for up to three hours before being admitted to Britain. On the same day, Damian Green, the Immigration minister, said the longest recent queuing time at the airport was a 90-minute delay at terminal 5.
The BAA figures showed the non-EU target was missed on 23 of the 30 days in April at terminal 5, on 21 days at terminals 3 and 4 and on 12 days at terminal 1. By contrast, the target for handling 95 per cent of EU passport holders within 25 minutes was achieved on average over the month.
The Border Force has said 80 extra staff will be drafted in to Heathrow at peak times. Last week they had to be brought down from Manchester Airport to cope with the crowds.
The problems will be exacerbated by the decision of the two unions representing Border Force staff to join a one-day walk-out on Thursday by civil servants protesting against changes to their pensions.
Officials from the British Air Transport Association (BATA), which represents UK airlines, discussed contingency plans for coping with the strike with Ms May yesterday. BATA said afterwards that the targets for handling passenger arrivals were "not demanding enough" and warned: "The current passenger experience of frequent and excessive delays is unacceptable for legitimate travellers." The airlines called for extra borders staff and said the cash should come from the Air Passenger Duty airport departure tax.
Meanwhile the UK Border Agency (UKBA) faced scathing criticism over the quality of its computer system.
An immigration lawyer, Andrew Tingley, claimed its IT system had collapsed under the volume of visa applications, forcing senior executives and foreign investors to consider taking their business elsewhere.
Andrew Tingley, a partner at Kingsley Napley, said it was "beyond farcical" that new rules requiring foreign nationals from outside the EU to have a biometric residents' permit had left the IT system unable to cope.
A UKBA spokeswoman said: "We are experiencing some IT problems in our Croydon public enquiry office which we are working to resolve."