Simon Calder: Passport checks border on the ridiculous

The man who pays his way

A journey home begins with a single nudge, backwards. As the tug pushes the aircraft away from the gate, you feel a gentle bump. And relax: the airport stress is behind you, and all you need do for the next few hours is sit down and keep quiet. The tug uncouples, the engines surge and the plane starts to move forward.

Or not, in the case of British Airways flight 2038 from Orlando to Gatwick on Tuesday night. What BA describes as a "minor technical issue," could not be fixed as quickly as hoped. After four hours on the ground the flight crew could not complete the journey within the stipulated time limit. Shortly after midnight, the passengers were offloaded and bussed to hotels in the Walt Disney World area. They had been due back on Wednesday morning in the United Kingdom, but instead woke up in the Magic Kingdom and finally touched down in Sussex on Thursday afternoon.

While that might look like a dismal way to end a holiday, in fact the passengers were extremely lucky, They had a better Mickey Mouse experience than passengers whose flights made it back to Britain on schedule on Wednesday – particularly the 150,000 people who flew into London's airports. At the leading gateway, Heathrow, the Underground strike was compounded by separate industrial action which led to more than half the trains on the express rail link being cancelled. Welcome to Britain.

Worse was to come. Had BA's engineers been able to fix that plane problem in Florida just before the pilots went "out of hours", the flight would have landed at Gatwick on Wednesday afternoon, leaving passengers at the end of a queue longer than the line for Disney's Mission: Space.

An unspecified IT fault meant that the passport readers and "e-gates" stopped working. Manual processing led to "longer queues for some passengers" according to the Immigration and Security Minister, James Brokenshire. For passengers at Gatwick, Heathrow and many other airports, that translated as "mayhem".

As airport rage rippled through the queues and scuffles reportedly broke out at Luton and Gatwick, Mr Brokenshire insisted: "Security must remain our priority at all times." What the minister actually meant was: the illusion of security must be maintained at all costs.

Wrong queue, right approach

Despite our weather and unreliable transport, Britain is an attractive destination for all manner of villains, from human-traffickers to terrorists. The authorities want to keep bad people out. Yet the UK's frontiers, like those of every other nation, are leaky. So officials plod dutifully through the procedure of manually entering the passport details of returning holidaymakers who they know pose no threatand are merely tired, grumpy and keen to get home.

Talking of which: while queue-jumping is never to be condoned, on Monday night I opportunistically hopped from one queue to another. My Ryanair flight had touched down at Stansted behind schedule, and we all found ourselves caught up in the last dismal wave of arrivals at the end of the passport queue. The late-night line up was its normal tedious length.

Keen to get out of the Essex airport on the same day as I had landed, I spotted to my left a much shorter line and hopped over a barrier to join the back of it. You're probably, metaphorically, ahead of me – it was the queue for non-Europeans. By the time I figured out why it was proceeding at a glacial pace, I was too embarrassed to clamber back to the right line. So instead I watched the proceedings in a queue that I had not previously experienced.

If you have never joined the throng threading through the third-class queue (after flight crew, first, and Europeans, second), here's how it goes. Ahead stands a row of desks with officers diligently deciding if each traveller has the right to proceed. Of more interest are the people behind them: Border Force officials who constantly scan the queue. They are profiling passengers: using their eyes, training and experience to assess people whose behaviour suggests they require closer investigation.

Conversely, the vast majority of travellers deserve to be investigated less closely. That was the purpose of the "SmartZone" trials undertaken in 2011 to cut hassle for passengers landing in Britain. The Advance Passenger Information (API) that we are all obliged to submit was scrutinised while the plane was in the air. Some short- and long-haul flights with a high proportion of British passengers were given the lightest of touches: an officer who looked at the passenger, looked at their passport photograph and waved them through – just like the olden days. The average time taken to process a European flight fell from 18 minutes to eight, freeing up Border Force staff to focus on real risks.

"We're focused on the passenger experience, and on safe ways to get people through the border," said the man behind it, Brodie Clark. "Our intention is to help low-threat people through quickly, safely and comfortably. Those who do intend harm are sifted out."

No end of the line

Soon afterwards, Mr Clark resigned his post as head of the UK Border Force after an almighty row with the Home Secretary about the tactical relaxation of controls. Since then, Border Force officers have had to revert to a box-ticking culture that does no favours to travellers returning to, or visiting, Britain. Standing in absurdly long lines is, apparently, the price we must pay for the freedom to explore the world.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Product Development

    £26000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Product Development departm...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

    £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

    Recruitment Genius: Developer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Estates Contracts & Leases Manager

    £30000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Estates Team of this group ...

    Day In a Page

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border