New figures published as home secretary, Border Force and airlines discuss how to deal with next week’s one-day strike
One in four of all non-European passengers arriving at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 during April had to wait longer than the target time of 45 minutes to get through passport control, according to official airport figures.
Airports operator BAA said the worst delays happened on Monday, when non-European passengers arriving at Terminal 4 were forced to wait three hours to get through passport control.
The disclosure of the true scale of the chaos that passengers at the airport have endured over the past month came as the home secretary, Theresa May, met airline chiefs about next week’s threatened one-day strike by border staff and to find a way of combining border security with minimal delays.
Monday night’s delays came after emergency border staff were flown in from Manchester to help out and the immigration minister, Damian Green, dismissed reports of waits of longer than 90 minutes as wild.
The next day David Cameron ordered ministers to admit the queues at Heathrow were unacceptable and to “get a grip” on the problem.
BAA, which owns Heathrow, published the UK Border Force’s monthly performance data for the first time on Thursday . The aim is to meet targets of an average 45-minute waiting time for non-European passport holders and an average 25-minute waiting time for European, including UK, passport holders.
The figures show that 24% of non-European passengers had to wait longer than 45 minutes at Terminal 5 during April, with the target missed on 23 out of the 30 days.
They also confirm that there were serious problems at Terminal 3, where 13% of non-European passengers had to wait longer than 45 minutes, and at Terminal 4, where 15% had to wait longer than the target. Passengers in both terminals faced serious delays on 21 out of the 30 days in April.
The data, which samples queuing every 15 minutes from 8am to 10pm, contrasts with Home Office figures based on hourly samples.
A Border Force spokesman stressed that its figures and the BAA data showed that average queuing time targets for UK and other European passport holders had been met in April.
“But we know at times queues have been too long. That is why we have announced an extra 80 staff for peak times at Heathrow,” he said. “In the longer term, our management and rostering changes will address the issue of queues.”
After their hour-long meeting with the home secretary, the British Air Transport Association (Bata), the trade body representing 11 British airlines, issued a statement saying: “The current passenger experience of frequent and excessive delays is unacceptable for legitimate travellers.”
The airlines said they had told May the existing 25-minute and 45-minute average-delay targets were “not demanding enough” and should be replaced with maximum delay targets, and the waiting times should be brought down.
Both parties agreed that in the short term the problem could be eased by pumping in temporary additional resources, including an immediate 80 “back office” staff, but acknowledged this would prove no more than a sticking plaster solution.
The airlines offered to work with the home secretary on a longer-term answer based on a greater use of technology to screen passengers before they reached the arrivals passport desk. The airlines’ statement said the home secretary had accepted the value of working together.
However, they made clear they were not prepared to foot the bill for extra border staff through increased landing fees – a scheme said to have the backing of Cameron. A Bata spokesman said the £2.9bn already paid each year in air passenger duty should be sufficient to pay for extra staff.
“Airlines do not accept that a secure border and a good standard of service offering minimal delays to passengers are incompatible objectives,” said the Bata statement.
The two unions representing Border Force officers who staff the passport control desks at Heathrow are to join the one-day pension strike by civil service workers next Thursday, and have warned there will be serious problems.
The Home Office is expected to draft in staff and managers with the necessary security clearance from other parts of the UK Border Agency, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence. A similar strike in November passed without problems but airlines encouraged passengers to travel on other days and there were claims that inexperienced staff waved passengers through.
Lucy Moreton, the Immigration Services Union deputy general secretary, said: “We don’t want to cause disruption, but if the Cabinet Office continues to ignore our concerns over pensions then that is what we are going to do. We have hundreds of members at Heathrow so it will have a significant impact.”
In a recent ballot of ISU members, 73% of votes cast in a 32% turnout rejected the government’s pension proposals. The package would replace retirement at 65 with a flexible retirement age, which the ISU claims could mean staff being forced to work until their late 60s.
But Green said: “This strike is completely unnecessary and we believe the public will find it unacceptable if unions push ahead. The security of the UK border is of the utmost importance and we will use tried and tested contingency plans to ensure we minimise any disruption caused by planned industrial action.”