Travellers returning today after a long weekend away face the prospect of more long delays at passport control, as the border skirmishes over passport queues intensify.
Following rising complaints of long lines at Heathrow, passengers passing through Stansted over the weekend reported waits of two hours or more to pass through immigration, which the airport's management described as "unacceptable".
Queues could build to similar lengths tonight during the rush home from the Bank Holiday. Between 10pm and midnight passengers are due to arrive at Stansted at the rate of one per second.
The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, warned yesterday that drug smuggling could increase as a result of staff being switched from Customs to Immigration duties in a bid to reduce waiting times at passport control.
Interviewed by a previous home secretary, Jacqui Smith, on the London radio station LBC 97.3, Ms Cooper said the current Home Secretary, Theresa May, had been warned of a "huge risk" in cutting front-line UK Border Agency staff by 1,500 ahead of the Olympics.
"Some of the reports coming from border staff are quite worrying, about people who they are worried about coming through [the border]," Ms Cooper said. "They're under pressure from their managers not to do the full checks on them, because of the length of the queue. The Home Secretary has gone to ground. She has to answer some questions."
Ms May has faced mounting criticism from airports, airlines and passengers over the lengthening queues for passport control. BAA took the unprecedented step of publishing its own data on waits for passport control at Heathrow, which show that targets for non-EU passengers were missed on more than three-quarters of days last month.
The UK Border Agency has taken an uncompromising line, insisting that security will not be relaxed – but there have been hints from the Home Office of a move towards a light-touch approach for flights that are considered to represent a low threat. Advance information about passengers is routinely supplied by the airlines to the Border Agency.
At Heathrow, where many passengers are from outside Europe, attention has focused on the queue for non-EU citizens. But at Stansted, almost all the flights, and the vast majority of passengers, are from the EU.
As the political faultline over the UK frontline widened, it emerged that BAA is selling the right to avoid queues on arrival for £300 per passenger or more. Access to the Windsor Suite at Terminal 5 is on sale for £1,800, covering up to six passengers on the same flight.
The sales pitch for "Heathrow by Invitation" promises: "It's the perfect welcome as you return to Heathrow. Straight to your private lounge, in chauffeur-driven luxury from where you touch down."