Why are UK airport queues so bad?

The UK Border force missed its 45-minute target on 21 days last month. What causes the delays?

"Welcome to London," smiles the immigration officer as the queue at Heathrow melts away in minutes and excited tourists swiftly stumble into the brilliant sunshine outside. You probably realised that sentence was a laughable fantasy before the weather bit: pre-Olympic anxiety about the tedious reality facing foreign visitors at Britain's biggest airport is growing after figures revealed the UK Border Force missed its 45-minute processing target for non-European Economic Area passengers on 21 days last month at Terminal 4. The longest recorded waiting time was two hours and one minute. The reality is worse. The 45-minute target is considered to be met if it applies to 95% of passengers so 5% may wait longer. CCTV measuring queues has also indicated even lengthier waiting times. And that's before you've collected your bags and navigated duty free.

Other busy global airports seem far more efficient. Even notoriously draconian US border officials produced an average "wait time" for British arrivals at JFK of 20-29 minutes (depending on the time of day) in 2011. So why is Heathrow so slow? "I wouldn't say the issue is space – it's lack of border staff at key terminals," says Richard Moxon, senior lecturer in airport planning and management at Cranfield University. Moxon used to work at Heathrow and says BAA has done much to address criticisms that there was too much room for shopping and not enough for security controls.

Other academics agree that immigration staffing is the key to swiftly moving queues. More blue-sky improvements could involve offering passengers cheaper tickets to arrive at offpeak times or passengers scanning their own passports before reaching border control. Given staffing cuts are ongoing until 2015, is there anything that can be done to help? As a frequent flyer, Moxon tries to avoid getting into big airports at busy times. "I wouldn't want to arrive in London at 6am from Asia or North America," he says.


Patrick Barkham

The GuardianTramp

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