Travel chaos at UK airports after glitch closes passport e-gates for hours

Pictures posted on social media showed long queues at passport control

Images shared on social media show long queues at the e-gates in London’s Heathrow Airport. PA
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Passengers arriving at some of the UK's busiest airports on Tuesday night faced long queues and chaotic scenes after a malfunction in the Border Force’s electronic gate system that lasted more than four hours.

Airports including London Heathrow, the country’s busiest, experienced a systems cut that it described as a “nationwide issue”. The system came back online shortly after midnight, the Home Office said on Wednesday.

The technical problems affected several airports, including Gatwick, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle and Manchester.

Heathrow Airport said it was aware of problems for Border Force nationwide and was trying to help, before the UK Home Office said in a statement early on Wednesday: “eGates at UK airports came back online shortly after midnight.

“As soon as engineers detected a wider system network issue at 7.44pm (GMT), a large-scale contingency response was activated within six minutes. At no point was border security compromised and there is no indication of malicious cyber activity.”

Pictures posted on social media showed long queues at passport control gates.

One passenger, who shared a video showing a crowded arrivals hall, wrote on X: “Stuck with thousands at Heathrow T5 as all the E-Gates are down. Apparently a nationwide system power cut. You see how high-capacity the system normally is by how rapidly things turn to chaos when it breaks; plane after plane of people pouring in and backing up in the corridors …”

Lucy Moreton, the Immigration Services Union’s Professional Officer, said it was not the first time e-gates had been affected by the issue, and the union had repeatedly asked the government to put contingency plans in place to deal with the problem.

“We're assured that they are there but the next time the gates go down, as unfortunately they did yesterday, it's evident that there just simply isn't the infrastructure, or the staff any more to try to process people through the border while maintaining border security,” she told Radio 4's Today show on Wednesday.

She said when Border Force officers have to step in it means they are not fulfilling their other responsibilities, which include checking baggage, looking for drugs, checking freight and parcels, “which are equally vital in order to try to pull people through the border as quickly as they can”.

“We are working closely with Border Force and affected airports to resolve the issue as soon as possible,” Heathrow posted on X earlier in the evening.

“Our teams are supporting Border Force with their contingency plans to help resolve the problem as quickly as possible and we apologise for any impact to your journey.”

One traveller described border officials rushing to manually process passport holders.

“All the e-gates were totally blank and there was just a lot of chaotic scenes,” said Sam Morter, 32, who was returning to Heathrow from a holiday in Sri Lanka.

Mr Morter said he made it out of the airport after about 90 minutes.

Paul Curievici landed at Gatwick Airport at around 7.30pm on a flight from Lyon and waited in line for almost an hour at passport control.

The 41-year-old said: "[I was] a little bit resigned at what initially looked like another British infrastructure failing, and [I had] quite a lot of sympathy for the [border force officers] furrowing their brows and trying not to look embarrassed.”

Mr Curievici said the e-gates at Gatwick had since reopened but that fast-track passengers continued to be prioritised, which he found “pretty galling”.

He continued: “There was an awkward moment – half of us had been funnelled into the 'all passports' queue.

“When the system came back online they reopened almost all the UK/EU gates without opening any for us – I actually raised it with a member of staff and they finally opened one.”

A London Gatwick representative said: “Some passengers may experience delays at immigration due to a nationwide issue with UK Border Force e-gates.”

Passports were checked manually at some airports.

“We are aware of an issue with UK Border Force's systems across the country, affecting a significant number of airports,” a Manchester Airport representative said.

Britain's automated border gates system crashed in May last year, causing long queues and several hours of delays for passengers.

The country's air traffic system was also affected in August last year when a technical problem disrupted the National Air Traffic Service for several hours.

Updated: May 08, 2024, 11:02 AM