Airport operator BAA plans increase as Boris Johnson complains queues are damaging Britain’s reputation abroad
Airport authorities are drawing up a plan to sort out Heathrow’s passport chaos by levying higher landing fees to fund more border staff, in a move that is believed to have the backing of David Cameron.
Willie Walsh, the chief executive of International Airlines Group, which includes British Airways, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the airlines were prepared to pay the higher landing fees as long as the charges led to a competent service. But he warned: “We are not prepared to pay a government that wastes money.”
Walsh said ministerial claims that nobody had waited longer than one and a half hours to get into Britain were untrue, and the continuing passport queue chaos at Heathrow and other airports meant Britain was not open for business. “We need urgent action,” he said Walsh.
The immigration minister, Damian Green, confirmed that the scheme was under discussion between BAA, which owns Heathrow, and the airlines, but he said it had not yet been presented to the Home Office: “I have not had a presentation on that. I do not know the details,” he said. “If somebody comes up with a proposal, we will look at it.”
The plan to raise the airlines’ landing levy to pay for more border staff at Heathrow echoes the deal struck five years ago to end lengthy queues at security gates that were severely disrupting plane departure times.
BAA already levies over £1bn in annual landing charges at Heathrow, with some of the money used to pay for new technology at border control, including the automatic e-passport gates. A major issue in the argument over delays at passport checks is the government’s decision to cut UK Border Force staff numbers by 18% over the next three years, a reduction that critics say is beginning to bite.
The immigration minister made clear he was pinning his hopes of an immediate end to the crisis on the deployment of new “flying squad” teams of border staff who will be rushed from terminal to terminal at Heathrow to deal with unexpected surges in passenger arrivals.
Green also appears to confirm that the government’s pledge to ensure full staffing levels of all border desks at peak times will apply only to the Olympic period and not to the whole of the summer holiday. “The Olympics are a one-off and we need to find a permanent solution,” he said.
Green’s comments came after the Home Office brought in immigration officers from Manchester in an emergency move to help out at Heathrow amid mounting criticism, including from London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, that the persistent queues were damaging Britain’s international reputation.
Queues at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 broke official time limits on 107 occasions during the first 15 days of April, leaked immigration data tables show.
The leaked document detailing queue times for Terminal 3 from April 1-15 show that the 45-minute maximum wait service standard for passengers from outside Europe was breached 82 times. The time limits were not met on 13 of the 15 days. The longest wait faced by non-European passengers was 91 minutes.
For European passport holders, including those from the UK, for whom the service standard is a 25-minute maximum wait, the time limit was breached five times. Even the new fast-track “e-gates” were hit by delays, with the leaked queue times summary showing the standards were breached 20 times during the first two weeks of April.
Labour claimed the figures showed that UK Border Force staff were struggling to cope with passport queues across Heathrow and not just at the high-profile Terminal 5. The shadow immigration minister, Chris Bryant, said the government was displaying “utter incompetence” in not giving the force enough resources to do the job properly.
Facing an emergency Commons question on the passport crisis on Monday, Green insisted steps were being taken to improve the situation at Heathrow and gave a clear pledge that all immigration desks would be fully staffed at peak periods during the Olympics. He was forced to defend a decision to spend £2.5m on new uniforms for UK Border Force workers.
The minister blamed some of the Heathrow problems on severe weather, which he said had led to diverted flights and the “bunching” in arrivals, but conspicuously left open the option of returning to a “risk-based approach” to passport checks. “They are an option any government should consider,” he told MPs.
But he said the leaked data was unreliable and did not accord with the force’s official figures. He said the target was met for European passengers on all 15 days, and on 11 out of 15 days for non-European passengers.
The Commons statement followed the emergence of an open row between Heathrow authorities and the UK Border Force, who blocked the distribution of leaflets to passengers apologising for the lengthy delays and advising them to complain to the Home Office.
The steps being taken to cope with the crisis include a new central control office to co-ordinate how staff are allocated across Heathrow’s five terminals, and mobile rapid deployment units to respond to surges in passenger numbers. New shift patterns had been agreed with staff, Green said.
“The important factor is to have staff that are flexibly deployed in the right numbers, at the right times,” he said. “Border security is Britain’s first line of defence, and it will not be compromised.”
Lucy Moreton, of the Immigration Service Union, spelled out exactly what this policy meant: “A number of staff at Manchester turned up to work today and were herded on to a plane and flown to Heathrow. They got four hours’ work out of them.”