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News & Advice

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.