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Heathrow's exasperating immigration queues require urgent action

The late-night passport issue is one highly visible aspect of the aviation capacity crunch facing London

Simon Calder
Friday 25 August 2017 17:35 BST
British Airways has launched a scathing attack on the Home Office over 'dreadful' immigration queues at airports
British Airways has launched a scathing attack on the Home Office over 'dreadful' immigration queues at airports (PA)

A boarding pass for “London Heathrow”? Treat it as a lottery ticket.

Most of the time, Britain’s biggest and most congested airport works remarkably well. But it takes little to disrupt operations and trigger frustration for passengers.

Earlier this summer I took the last BA flight of the day from Nice to Heathrow. On a good day, an on-time arrival at 10.40pm means passengers are clear by 11pm – with plenty of public transport options still available.

But that day the outbound departure had been delayed by a long queue to take off. As a result the plane took off from Nice half-an-hour late – meaning it arrived at Terminal 5 after 11pm.

Passengers were initially bemused that the automatic “eGates” had been closed for the night, then increasingly annoyed as the wait dragged on. No doubt the border officials wanted to be home just as much as the morose travellers whose documents they were checking.

From what I could find out at the time, while the eGates dramatically accelerate processing, they require a certain level of staffing in order to be deployed. It appears that the shift system means there is no provision for a quorum after 11pm.

As a result, weary passengers were emerging from Arrivals at midnight as trains, Tube and buses were shutting down for the night; expensive as well as exasperating.

Organisations from McDonalds to the UK Border Force have to deal with unpredictable flows of customers, and make sensible business decisions about staffing levels. Throwing resources at the peaks could ensure no-one has to wait more than two minutes for a Big Mac or a passport check, but for most of the time staff will be twiddling their thumbs (or, these days, checking Facebook or Instagram).

A short-term fix to the current BA/Home Office spat might involve the airline paying the overtime bill in order to keep the eGates in operation and passengers pacified.

The late-night passport issue, though, is merely one aspect of the aviation capacity crunch facing London.

This week the prospect of expansion receded still further with Labour indicating it will oppose a third runway at Heathrow. Environmental concerns must be taken seriously – but the needs of the nation for resilient infrastructure are equally imperative, to improve the odds that Britain's aviation industry can flourish in a ferociously competitive world.

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