Passengers are facing “unacceptable” queues of up to six hours in Heathrow’s immigration halls because of the time coronavirus checks are taking to carry out, MPs heard.
Airport boss Emma Gilthorpe called on the Government to provide more resources so that all the border desks could be manned to reduce the waiting time.
She told the Commons Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday Border Force was already under a “huge amount of pressure” at the airport and there were “unacceptable levels of queueing”.
Ms Gilthorpe said: “We are seeing significant pressure on the border and we are seeing very long queues and that is a worry.”
She later added: “Now it is not uncommon to see queues of three hours and we have had queues extending out to nearly six hours on occasion.
“The extra layers that have been introduced are crippling the resourcing capability that Border Force has in place.”
The airport – which typically sees 80 million passengers in a year – presently has around 10-15% of its normal volume of travellers, the committee heard.
The aim is for EU passengers to wait no longer than 25 minutes, or 45 minutes for non-EU travellers, at the border.
Delays have increased ever since the London Olympics in 2012, and queues of up to two hours before the pandemic were common so there had been a “big push”, with the Home Office and Border Force to improve the situation, Ms Gilthorpe said.
Covid compliance checks – like ensuring travellers have filled in a passenger locator form, have pre-departure test results, can justify their travel and whether they need to go into hotel quarantine after coming from a red list country – need to be made digital “rapidly” so that E-gates can reopen and boost capacity, she added.
Ms Gilthorpe told MPs: “We need a systematic and sustained focus on how we are going to resource so we can stop passengers having to queue for unacceptable lengths of time.
“We do all we can at Heathrow … but ultimately, we need to get flow moving through the border far, far better than we have at the moment.”
Committee member Adam Holloway described the delays as “absolutely staggering” and asked how this could be possible if officers were dealing with far fewer travellers at the moment.
Ms Gilthorpe said: “Ultimately it is for Government to provide the resources,” adding: “The Border Force officers that we have need to be on those desks and it is deeply frustrating as the operator of the airport when you have a queue full of people and you only have two desks open, and it is rare to see all the desks manned, and we have to find our way to how we make that happen so we can get that flow.”
She said if every desk was open, as was the case during the Olympics, then “even with these additional measures, we would not be seeing three- and four-hour queues, let alone six-hour queues”.
Ms Gilthorpe warned the country could miss out on “economic resurgence” if the problems are not solved, telling MPs: “We have to make sure that we are capable of receiving people, because if you have a poor experience at the border then there is a risk you’re not going to come back again.
“And that traffic will go to Charles de Gaulle (airport), it will go to Frankfurt, and we will miss out on that economic resurgence because we know Heathrow is key for that business and trade as part of that recovery.”