Heathrow boss blames UK Border Force for nightmare airport queues

Aviation industry urges government to ditch testing for double-vaccinated passengers

Arriving passengers queue at UK Border Control at Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport in London. Reuters.
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The boss of Heathrow Airport has blamed the British government's Border Force for lengthy airport queues and said more agents are needed to deal with passenger demand.

John Holland-Kaye, the airport's chief executive, said the UK Border Force is “a world class service” and that e-gates which allow international passengers to be processed efficiently are “fantastic when they work".

However, he said the agency “struggled to cope” with an influx of passengers during the busy summer months, leading to hours-long queues for some arrivals required to give evidence of a negative Covid test.

Speaking at the Transport Committee in parliament, Mr Holland-Kaye said: “The challenges I see with Border Forces is when we have peaks. When we have things that require a lot of manual intervention, that's when they really struggle to cope.

“And that's exactly what we saw two weeks ago at the end of the summer holidays when a lot of families were coming back.

“We couldn't use the e-gates and there simply weren't enough people on the desk to support them. There were e-gates that had broken down with no engineer to fix them.”

He described the situation as “entirely fixable” and urged the Border Force and Home Office to anticipate where the demand would be and to plan resources accordingly.

Staff members must be at the desk before the queue builds “because if that happens, the queue never really gets going”, he added.

During the hearing, airline bosses also urged the government to come in line with some European rules and ditch testing entirely for double-vaccinated passengers.

The government announced last week that fully vaccinated travellers arriving in England would no longer need to take a pre-departure test from Monday, and the post-arrival day-two test can be a cheaper lateral flow one, rather than a PCR test, from the end of October.

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EasyJet's chief commercial officer Sophie Dekkers said the airline was “surprised and delighted” by the change in policy, but said it was made too late.

“October half-term is probably the only big opportunity for people [to go on holiday] in the near term, so although we saw a good uplift in trading and sales over the weekend, we’ve missed the boat unfortunately with the summer holidays.”

Ms Dekkers urged the government to go further and scrap the day-two test as “the UK is lagging behind Europe” and “nowhere else in Europe do they have testing like this”.

She went on: “If we really want to be competitive we need to be on a level playing field, we need to accept that we have very high vaccination rates, as does most of the rest of Europe now.

“The risk is very low and we need to just remove this last hurdle.”

She said “it doesn’t make sense” that testing requirements were tougher this summer than in 2020 despite the progress on vaccinations.

Mr Holland-Kaye told the hearing that the easing of travel rules was “a step in the right direction” but called for a return to “frictionless travel”.

He said: “We’re going to have to live with Covid. We all recognise that. Vaccination is our way through this, and if you’ve been double-vaccinated you would expect that you can get back to travel as normal without all the testing and the forms you have to fill in.”

He added: “We are in a fight for the economic future of this country.

“We’re not going to win that fight if we’re always playing catch-up with the Europeans.

“None of the major markets in Europe have any kind of testing, very few of them have any countries on their red list, and we are still in catch-up mode.

“If we want to win we’ve got to get ahead and be far more progressive about opening up and being a welcoming, liberal, open trading nation.”

Updated: September 21, 2021, 6:09 PM