Heathrow boss: ‘Scrap online permit for transit passengers or UK will suffer’

Heathrow’s CEO says a demand for transit passengers to pay £10 and enrol online for a permit will hurt the UK.

Thomas Woldbye criticised plans for the new Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme to apply to connecting travellers – even if they spend only two hours at the airport between international flights.

He told The Independent: “It clearly reduces the competitiveness of the hub that we have built in Heathrow, which I think is critical to the UK.”

The ETA scheme is currently open to visitors from Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The scheme will expand worldwide to include all travellers who do not currently need a visa to visit or transit through the UK, including nationals from Europe and America.

Unlike all other major European nations, passengers making same-airport international connections must have the same documentation that they would need if arriving in the UK for a holiday or business visit.

At Amsterdam Schiphol, Frankfurt and Paris Charles de Gaulle, connecting passengers do not need to meet local border requirements if they are flying on to another destination outside Europe’s Schengen Area.

Mr Woldbye said: “We support the ETA system because it makes sense, immigration-wise.”

But he said passengers “who are entirely transiting airside to move on to another country” should avoid the hassle of an online application and paying £10 for a brief stop.

“Honestly, I think it’s a mistake,” the Heathrow chief executive said. “I think that should be changed as fast as possible.”

Mr Woldbye was speaking to The Independent on the day Heathrow announced its first profit for three years.

About 30 per cent of passengers using Heathrow are on connecting flights – representing around 25 million journeys in a year.

On a route such as Bahrain to Boston, which has no direct flights, passengers could choose to connect at Frankfurt, Istanbul or London Heathrow. But only for a journey through Heathrow would Bahraini travellers need to apply online and pay for permission to be in the “airside” transit lounge.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are expected to lose traffic to European rivals.

Paul Charles, director of The PC Agency and former Virgin Atlantic communications director, said: “Taxing transit is tantamount to failure. If other airports offer free transit then they will pick up market share.

“Airports should be zones of ease, enabling seamless travel. This proposed tax needs removing.”

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: ”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.

“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.”

Government online information about the new scheme says: “Requiring those transiting to obtain an ETA will stop transit being a future loophole for people to use to avoid needing an ETA. This is in line with the US Esta scheme.”

There is a big difference between the UK and the US, though. All arrivals at American airports are required to pass through the US border, as though they were planning to stay for weeks or months, before connecting to an onward flight. This will not be required of transit passengers in the UK.

The European Union is expected to roll out its much-delayed Electronic Travel Information and Authorisation System (Etias) next year. The EU says explicitly to passengers making international connections: “You do not need an Etias travel authorisation if you only remain in the international transit area.”

Listen to the full interview between Simon Calder and Thomas Woldbye, Heathrow CEO