Last Sunday marked a milestone in the history of a flagship UK airport. Over 262,000 passengers passed through the facility on Heathrow’s busiest day, the latest in a string of record days since new routes have opened. But it’s not all good news, as Heathrow wait times at the border also reach record levels, prompting major carriers including Virgin and British Airways to call on the UK government to address what they’ve dubbed the ‘border farce’.
The iconic British airport is experiencing higher than ever passenger numbersHeathrow Airport stated on their website that popular North American routes have grown by 8.1% in recent months. Passenger numbers for the Asia-Pacific routes also grew, to the tune of 4.2%, thanks to new connections being made by Hainan Airlines, Tianjin Airlines and Beijing Capital Airlines.
The airport put their record-breaking passenger numbers down to new routes being added, as well as bigger, fuller aircraft operating internationally. Over July, more than quarter of a million passengers passed through the airport on 19 different days. Unfortunately, these huge passenger numbers are contributing to Heathrow’s immigration queue reaching record sizes too.
Greet and Treat
Amid immigration queues of up to two hours, Virgin Atlantic are putting their customers first. Wielding welcome carts stacked high with water, crisps and confectionary, they’ve been trying to help passengers arriving at Terminal 3 to grin and bear the long Heathrow wait times to enter the country.
CEO Craig Kreeger said,
“At Virgin Atlantic, we’re doing our bit to try and help our international customers – providing extra staff, as well as drinks and snacks for the queue – but only the Border Force can resolve these unacceptable queue times and they must take action.”
He commented that the UK needed to demonstrate to the world that it was truly open for business, which includes making a good first impression on arrival. Addressing the Heathrow immigration queue would be a good first step towards improvement.
Virgin currently land 23 international arrivals at London Heathrow. They hope their Greet and Treat initiative will help passengers be more tolerant of the delays and help to create a better impression of both the airline and the country.
The border farce
According to Virgin, only one day this July was in line with the Service Level Agreement in place with the UK Border Force. Their agreement states that they should process 95 per cent of non-EEA nationals within 45 minutes of arrival.
Prior to Kreeger’s complaint, CEO of British Airways, Alex Cruz, had issued a letter to the Times calling on the government to address the ‘border farce’. He stated that passport control queues in the UK were much longer than most other countries, and that the government should prioritise finding solutions to these ‘huge delays’.
The longest waits this summer, so far, have been felt by non-EEA passengers arriving on July 6th. Although not Heathrow’s busiest day, many waited up to two hours and 36 minutes to pass through the border. With foreign nationals accounting for around 87% of tourist spending, a key element of the British economy, it’s clear more needs to be done to get people in and enjoying themselves after their long journey.
In reply to the demands by these two important international carriers, a Home Office spokesperson said that they would be deploying a further 200 staff to manage Heathrow’s border control.
No longer fit for purpose
This isn’t the first time that the Border Force has come under scrutiny for the excessive waiting times. Last month a report by the Airport Operators Association (AOA) declared that the service was no longer ‘fit for purpose’. Chief executive of the AOA, Karen Dee, said that,
“The UK is currently not getting this right: visitors and returning UK residents regularly face long queues. Not only do these queues breach Border Force’s own waiting time targets, but it is clear those targets are no longer fit for purpose. Passengers believe that a queue time of only half the current maximum waiting time would be acceptable.”