Why are airport queues so long and what are passengers’ rights if they miss a flight?

Exclusive: Former Gatwick security officer Simon Calder explains all

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 18 May 2022 08:06 BST
Travellers stuck in long queues at Birmingham Airport as staff shortages lead to delays

Hundreds of thousands of passengers have been caught up in long airport queues in recent months, with some travellers missing flights and other departures being delayed. These are the key questions and answers.

Why are airport security queues currently so long?

The problem has the same root as the widespread cancellations on British Airways and easyJet: a surge in demand for holidays abroad following the UK’s removal - after nearly two years - of Covid travel restrictions.

The pandemic is having a huge impact in two ways. First, current levels of staff sickness are higher than normal. But there is also a long-term effect – in terms of the tens of thousands of aviation professionals who have left the industry, taking with them everything from decades of experience to security clearance.

Airlines and airports are now struggling to recruit suitable staff – and train them, and get them security cleared. Starting work at 4am in a high-stress environment is not everyone’s idea of a great job.

In addition, the airports say that during the travel shutdown people haven’t been flying regularly, so may have forgotten the “liquids rule” (all liquids in hand luggage must be no more than 100ml and presented in a sealed plastic bag). When lots of bags have to be hand-searched at security, the process is dramatically slowed down.

How can I avoid the queues?

One strategy is to turn up ridiculously early – for example at 3am for a 7am flight (though if you are checking baggage you will need to ensure your airline is open).

At Gatwick, the leading holiday airport, North Terminal security opens at 2am, while the South Terminal opens at 3.30am.

Checkpoints at Heathrow generally open at 4am.

But for the first wave of flights, numbers build up very quickly – by 5.30am, many UK airports are very busy.

Passenger behaviour could actually hinder the process: if travellers booked at 10am turn up at 6am, which may be individually rational, it adds to the pressure on the first wave of departure. Most airports are advising against this, as they say it swells queues and prevents people whose flights are imminent from getting through on time.

By mid-morning at airports with a very large proportion of short-haul flights – such as Stansted, Luton, Liverpool and Belfast City – queues have largely eased, and generally stay manageable, though often with an afternoon “bulge”.

At airports with many long-haul flights, though, including Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, mid-morning is prime time for late-morning intercontinental departures. There is also often an early evening bulge when people check in for overnight flights.

The best plan could be to pay for fast-track security, costing £4 at Manchester, £5 at Stansted, £6 at Edinburgh. But bear in mind that airports cap the number of fast-track passes issued – you can’t rely on paying to accelerate the process once you see just how long the line is.

Some airports, such as Heathrow, restrict the privilege of fast-track security to elite members of airlines’ loyalty schemes.

Can I queue-jump?

Possibly, if you ask nicely and you have a good excuse . For example, when a delayed train meant I arrived at Birmingham Airport just 30 minutes before my Ryanair flight to Corfu, I asked other passengers if I could speed to the front, and made the plane. But if everyone has been in line for two hours and has their own pressing needs, you will get neither sympathy nor cooperation.

Speaking to staff can sometimes accelerate your progress if they accept that your need is greater than others’.

What are your rights if you are stuck in a security queue and miss your flight?

First, do everything you can to try to catch the flight. Follow your airline’s advice on when to turn up. If time is ticking away, inform airport/airline staff and try to enlist their help. Once “airside” don’t dawdle in duty free, obviously – go straight to the gate.

Don’t give up too soon. Airlines will sometimes delay a flight to accommodate late-running passengers if a significant number are stuck in security.

If you get to the departure gate and miss the flight through no fault of your own, airlines have no legal obligation to help you.

Some will allow you to transfer to a later flight if there is any space available, which sadly is increasingly unlikely.

Travel insurance may help meet additional costs, if you can demonstrate you did everything right.

Surely the airport is responsible – can I claim from them?

In the past, at times of one-off extreme delays in security, airports have sometimes met claims from passengers.

But a leading lawyer says the options for travellers who miss their flights due to long security queues are tricky.

Gary Rycroft, partner with Lancaster firm Joseph A Jones, says the provisions of the Consumer Rights Act – which require firms to carry out a service with “reasonable care and skill” – do not apply as travellers have no direct contractual relationship with the airport.

He told The Independent: “Courts will determine there is a legal duty of care beyond a strict contractual relationship if three criteria are met:

  • “Harm must be a reasonably foreseeable outcome of the conduct – here I would say delayed check in and or security checks leading to missed flights is reasonably foreseeable.
  • “There must be a relationship of ‘proximity’ between the parties – here the holidaymakers have no choice but to go through the check in/security checks administered by the airport– so I cannot see what could be more proximate.
  • “It must be ‘fair and reasonable’ to impose liability. Here, conduct of the parties will be relevant. For instance, did the passenger arrive in ‘good time’ as advised on their paperwork, did the airline have enough staff available. An analysis of what has caused the delays and why will be required.”

For a claim in tort for negligence, Mr Rycroft says, “establishing a ‘duty of care’ and ‘breach’ of that duty are essential first steps in bringing a claim”.

It would need to be shown that the delays at security led to missing the flight.

The issue of damage should be straightforward: the loss of the value of the holiday or flight. But as with any legal claim, you must do all you can to mitigate the damage – including asking the airline to rebook you as soon as possible, ideally for no additional fee.

A brief history of airport security

Why is airport security so thorough?

“Terrorists will always wish to target civil aviation,” says the aviation security expert, Philip Baum. The first recorded hijacking of an aircraft happened in Peru in 1931.

In the late 1950s, hijackings of aircraft from Cuba to the US became commonplace, and soon unauthorised diversions began in the opposite direction.

The UK began taking aviation security seriously in the 1970s, when many aircraft were being targeted by terrorists. Initially checks were fairly rudimentary, with a metal detector arch or wand to check for firearms and a hand search of cabin baggage.

After the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, in which a bomb was loaded onto a Pan Am Boeing 747 without the passenger travelling, airlines started to match the passengers boarding with their checked-in baggage.

The most murderous terrorist attack was on 11 September 2001, when four US aircraft were hijacked and used as weapons of mass destruction. The hijackers passed through normal security checks – but took advantage of the absence of any ban on blades as well as unlocked flight deck doors.

After 9/11, the American authorities started to take a much tougher attitude to both airport security and passenger background.

Soon afterwards the British “shoe bomber” Richard Reid was apprehended, and consequently passengers often have to remove their footwear. And after the “liquid bomb plot” in 2006, a limit of 100ml on everything from shampoo to champagne was imposed.

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