Heathrow queues unacceptable, says airport operator

BAA says Home Office should be delivering good service for regular passengers as well as Olympic visitors

Passport queues at Heathrow have been "unacceptably long" during peak periods in the last few days, the airport operator has told Home Office ministers.

"The Home Office should be delivering a good experience for regular passengers as well as Olympic visitors," said BAA on Monday.

Its official complaint followed a snap 7am visit to Heathrow on Monday by Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Commons home affairs committee. He said he was appalled to discover immigration queues of more than an hour for non-EU passengers at Terminal 4 and that half the passport desks were closed.

Travellers face further problems getting into London after they have made it through passport control as the M4 motorway is closed until Thursday to repair cracks in a viaduct.

Vaz's claims triggered a row with the Home Office and BAA, which insisted that the passport desks were properly staffed and the longest queue was less than an hour. BAA figures put the longest wait for non-EU passport-holders at Heathrow at 56 minutes.

A Border Force spokesperson said: "Keith Vaz is incorrect. Queues at Terminal 4 remained under an hour at all times. Staff were quickly redeployed and more than 80% of desks were open to process passengers as quickly as possible."

The row followed the disclosure of internal BAA papers showing that the 45-minute target for non-EU passengers was repeatedly missed in June, with the longest wait at two hours, one minute. Vaz tweeted from Heathrow: "Just left T4. Appalled by immigration queues. People stacked in corridors. #airportqueues #olympics #immigration".

He later said: "It is now two months since the immigration minister promised additional resources and better management. The worst aspect was that half of the immigration desks were simply not opened, even though the Border Force had prior knowledge of all flight arrivals. This creates additional security pressures with luggage piling up in the baggage hall."

Vaz added that he would raise the problem with the immigration minister, Damian Green, when the latter gives evidence to the Commons home affairs committee on Tuesday. Further pressure on the UK Border Force to quickly resolve the problem is expected when the immigration inspector, John Vine, publishes his report on Heathrow on Thursday.

BAA said: "Immigration waiting times for passengers during peak periods at Heathrow in the last few days have been unacceptably long and the Home Office should be delivering a good experience for regular passengers as well as for Olympic visitors."

The statement added: "Immigration is a matter for the Home Office. The Home Office has said that from 15 July all Border Force desks at Heathrow will be open during peak Olympic arrival periods."
Green said a full reading of BAA's latest statistics showed its efforts to tackle queues have resulted in improvements over the last two months. This included consistently hitting targets on UK and EU passengers and reducing waiting times across the board..

"But we're not complacent about some long waiting times, which is why this weekend we have increased staffing numbers by more than 50% at Heathrow to respond to large passenger volumes," said Green. "That has seen average waiting times of around six minutes for EEA [European Economic Area] passengers and 22 minutes for those from outside Europe."

He added: "By the start of peak Olympic arrivals in less than 10 days there will be up to 500 additional staff on our rotas across the country – this includes enough staff at Heathrow to cover every desk during busy times. Additionally we have special lanes in place designated to Olympic athletes to enable them to pass through the border without delay."


Alan Travis

The GuardianTramp

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