Heathrow urges government to scrap ETA for transit passengers

Airport's hub status under threat from charges for those passing through to other destinations

Heathrow Airport's chief executive has warned that the Electronic Travel Authorisation scheme for transit passengers will hurt the British economy. EPA
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Attempts by the UK to widen visa-free arrivals with an Electronic Travel Authorisation scheme have backfired on Heathrow after transit passengers were included in the system.

The chief executive of Heathrow, Thomas Woldbye, has urged the British government to scrap ETAs for passengers who are merely passing through the airport to catch connecting flights to other destinations outside the UK.

Under the ETA scheme, international passengers with eligible and participating nationalities pay a fee of £10 ($12.50), regardless of whether they are entering Britain or are transit passengers flying on to somewhere else.

Currently, the scheme only applies to citizens of seven Middle Eastern states: the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan.

The scheme was launched in October last year and only applied to Qataris, while the other five Gulf states and Jordan joined in February this year.

The ETA scheme is cheaper, faster and easier to apply for than the long-standing Electronic Visa Waiver, which allowed visitors from the Gulf to stay in Britain for up to six months for tourism, business, study or medical treatment.

Under the new ETA system, travellers will be able to make unlimited visits to Britain over two years, or until the holder’s passport expires, whichever comes first.

The idea has been piloted with the Middle Eastern states because they represent the highest number of returning tourists, with tracking data showing that three quarters of all holiday visitors from the UAE make repeat visits to Britain.

Level playing field

Announcing another month of record passenger numbers at Heathrow for March, Mr Woldbye said that to keep the figures growing the government needs to “exempt airside transit passengers from the ETA scheme to avoid encouraging passengers to spend and do business elsewhere”.

“We need to level the playing field, so the UK aviation industry continues to be world-class,” he added.

Heathrow said the effect of the ETA on transit passenger numbers already shows in the figures from Qatar. In the first four months of the scheme, 19,000 fewer transit passengers travelled from the Gulf state to Heathrow.

That, Heathrow argues, is a worrying trend and a “huge blow to UK competitiveness as many long-haul routes, which are highly important to the UK’s economy, exports and wider connectivity, rely on transit passengers”.

Heathrow argues that the scheme is driving transit passengers to use other airports, potentially threatening its position as the world's most connected airport.

”We are introducing an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme to enhance border security by increasing our knowledge about those seeking to come to the UK and preventing the arrival of those who pose a threat," a spokesperson for the UK's Home Office said.

“Requiring transit passengers to obtain an ETA stops people who may use connecting flights to avoid gaining permission to travel to the UK.

"We are keeping this under review as we continue to roll out the scheme and we will continue to work with the aviation sector on this."

Heathrow said March was the second record-breaking month in a row, as nearly seven million people travelled through the airport.

Easter weekend was Heathrow's busiest ever, with 936,000 passengers departing or arriving. Good Friday was the busiest ever direct departure day, with 118,000 people starting their journeys at Heathrow.

Passport price pressure

Meanwhile, the cost of a British passport went up on Thursday, for the second time in 14 months.

The price of an online application for a new or renewed passport went up by 7 per cent to £88.50, having already risen by 9 per cent in February last year.

“While these latest price rises may well reflect rising production or processing costs, the UK passport is now among the priciest in Europe, and travellers due to renew will likely be shocked by how much these little blue books now cost,” said Guy Hobbs, a travel expert at the consumer group Which?

From the middle of next year, British passport holders will also have to pay £6 to travel inside the EU under the European Travel Information and Authorisation System.

Updated: April 12, 2024, 6:01 PM