My hell at Heathrow: Passengers 'squashed against each other' for hours

The UK’s busiest airport hit by massive waiting times as the summer holiday season ends

University of Oxford student Ayushi Aruna Agarwal spoke of her experience of waiting for hours in the immigration hall at Heathrow Airport. Photo: Ayushi Aruna Agarwal
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A woman who flew to the UK to study at the University of Oxford has described shocking scenes at Heathrow Airport in London where hundreds of people were “squashed against each other” for hours while queuing for immigration checks.

Ayushi Aruna Agarwal, 26, was forced to stand in line for about three hours in a packed waiting hall on Tuesday morning while Border Force staff checked passengers’ documents.

She said despite preparing for possible delays due to end of summer surge in air travel, she and other passengers were “shocked over how long the line was”.

Having joined the queue at 7.50am after landing from New Delhi, she was not released until 10.30am.

“There was no social distancing," the PhD student told The National. "There was a five-centimetre gap between me and the next passengers. We were totally squashed up against each other.

“In the middle of the queue I noticed a sign telling people to keep social distancing and stand two metres apart.

“It’s paying lip service to have that sign there because it’s not possible to stand two metres apart with that kind of crowd in a small place in the immigration section.

“I was really annoyed by the fact that first I had to stand in line and then I cannot even move around while self-isolating for a week. I paid £130 for a Covid test and have to quarantine for 10 days.

“It also puts me at risk. What if you didn’t get Covid on the flight but got it standing in the line? It’s totally the reverse of how you want people to enter the UK.”

Ms Agarwal, who works as an assistant professor at Jindal Global University in Delhi, said staff offered “no real help” to weary travellers in the queues.

She said to avoid having to go to the bathroom and lose her place in the queue she took only sips of water.

The long line included elderly passengers and young children. Many of the youths grew increasingly restless as the hours passed.

“I am young and fit but I had to put my backpack down," Ms Agarwal said. "I saw some old people and a few young children. Kids don’t like being in a place for a long time and they were fidgeting.

“There were people sitting on trolleys and people kicking their bags along the ground.”

The UK’s busiest airport has in recent days been blighted by lengthy waiting times in the immigration hall.

Frustrated customers have taken to social media to vent their anger and portray the chaotic scenes by posting photos.

On Wednesday morning, one passenger said they had to wait “four hours to clear immigration” and urged the airport to take action to reduce waiting times.

Another woman who landed at Heathrow on Tuesday posted a video on Twitter showing a long queue of people in a corridor.

Ayushi Aruna Agarwal is a PhD student at Oxford University. Photo: Ayushi Aruna Agarwal

Anticipating a lengthy wait, she said she “should have brought a tent, a sleeping bag and a mirror to see myself age in real time”.

One man said there was a huge backlog on Monday at passport control desks for those heading to connecting flights.

"Flying into Heathrow there is just one person on flight connections passport control, and a massive queue. Pathetic," he said.

And last weekend people reported having to wait up to five hours to pass through immigration checks at Heathrow.

One man called it a “disgrace” that only two desks were open to British passport holders and said “families with kids under 12 have to queue for two hours”.

Another unhappy flyer said it was “chaos” in their queue with pregnant women, young children and elderly men and women forced to wait.

They said: “Chaos at Heathrow Airport Terminal 4. Four hours waiting to go through immigration. Families with children, pregnant ladies and old folks. Everyone had to wait. Is that human?”

While Ms Agarwal said staff had asked her for proof of a Covid-19 test, many other travellers have claimed they were waved through without questions.

A Home Office representative said air travellers have been warned about possible longer waiting times as Border Force staff have to check for negative Covid tests.

“Throughout the pandemic we have been clear that queue times may be longer as we ensure all passengers are compliant with the health measures put in place to keep the UK public safe," they said.

“This weekend was the busiest of the year for returning passengers, with particularly high numbers of families with children under the age of 12 who cannot use e-gates.

“We have endeavoured to improve waiting times this week, for example by flexibly deploying staff across Heathrow Airport, and continue to work closely with all airports and airlines to make sure all passengers can have a safe and hassle-free journey.”

Updated: November 22, 2021, 8:33 AM