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Never-Ending Lines at Heathrow: The Issue and Potential Solutions

A British Airways 747-400 at London’s Heathrow Airport (Photo: AirlineGeeks | James Dinsdale)

With the United Kingdom planning for “Brexit” in March of 2019, several observers continue to reiterate the need to improve the country’s points of entry. However, with ongoing issues at the country’s largest airport, Heathrow, it remains to be seen how the airport can handle a larger in-flow of both European Union and non-European Union customers when it continues to experience the ongoing issues related to long customs lines.

Ongoing Issues

As reported in The Times and several other publications, arriving passengers into London-Heathrow have been experiencing wait times of over two hours, making it more difficult for both visitors and locals to arrive. Two mainstream airlines, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, have criticized the Home Office and urged them to resolve the problem.

While the U.K. government has targeted a wait time of 45 minutes or less for 95 percent of visitors from outside the European Economic Area (EEA), Heathrow did not reach this standard for 30 days in July. The government has stated the delays were caused by the computer failure and the large number of vulnerable adults and children, but many are beginning to wonder whether these problems will ever be effectively managed.

According to The Times, British Airways Chief Executive Alex Cruz has warned, “Two hours queue are fast becoming to the norm, and Heathrow queues were significantly worse than elsewhere in the continent.” He urged the government to deal with the “border farce” and criticized “what kind of message does this send, as we try to build links outside the E.U.?”

Mr. Craig Kreeger, Virgin Atlantic chief executive told the Press Association, “U.K. needs to show the world it is open for business, and we agreed security and safety are top priority, but other countries managed their border more effectively.”

Last month, during the second round match of England versus Columbia in the World Cup, arrival passengers were stuck in the Terminal Four passport control for three hours, where only 11 desks provided service despite 28 officers being on duty. Mr. John Holland Kaye, Heathrow chief executive claimed “lack of staffing”, who also proceeded to write a letter to the head of Border Force, Paul Lincoln, mentioning “this seems to be a failure of leadership.”

Home office spokesman cited “we understand the frustration for those who have experienced longer waits but will not compromise the essential checks. We are making sure Border Force has the resources it needs and are deploying 200 additional staff over summer to carry out at the border which keep our country safe.”

Potential Solutions

With no end in sight for delayed customs, several solutions have been proposed to help alleviate at least some of the congestion. Currently at Heathrow, visitors above the age of 12 from the European Union, EEA and Switzerland may use the electronic border gates. Mr. Kaye has suggested the visitors from low-risk countries, such as the United States and Canada, should be able to use the electronic gates in the future.

Currently, airports across the country provide fast-track services for premium passengers. Some have proposed selling an add-on package where passengers could pay £5 or more to avoid the long queue at passenger control. The government has suggested the fee could be spent to “help fund the immigration system, secure the border and invest in improving process.”

Finally, many are hopeful that the planned airport expansion for Heathrow will provide more space to process passengers in customs. While Parliament officially backed the Heathrow Airport third runway project in June, the judicial reviews are still not complete.

Pete Ainsley


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