The boss of Heathrow is concerned that there could be delays at the border when international travel restrictions ease, unless the Government throws resources behind its border agents.
“Bad organisation” from the Border Force has already led to hours-long queues after passengers disembark from their flights, despite the heavily reduced number of people travelling through the airport.
Passenger numbers at the airport were down 91% in the first three months of the year.
Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said that while most of the airport is ready for a potential relaunch of international travel on May 17, it risks being thrown off by poor staffing on the Border Force desks.
“We are trying to coordinate all the different companies across Heathrow to be able to cope with the growth – the airlines, the retailers, the ground handlers, the police. All those are in place,” he said on Thursday.
“The one concern I have is Border Force, because they’ve been struggling even with the low volume we have today. We don’t see enough changing at the moment to be confident that that will be fixed within the next few weeks.”
Passengers coming to the UK have to fill out paperwork before travelling to make sure they are Covid-19 compliant. These papers are meant to be checked by airlines before they board their flight, but also by border guards when they reach a UK airport.
However at one point just two Border Force desks were open to process a few hundred passengers, which forced some to wait for as long as six and a half hours to be seen.
“It’s not just a question of the paperwork, it’s just bad organisation that they don’t have enough people on the desk. That’s something that Border Force needs to fix ahead of May 17, and we’ve raised that with the Home Office, who manage Border Force,” Mr Holland-Kaye said.
The Home Office said that empty desks are sometimes a sign of border agents being forced to leave because a passenger has not filled in forms correctly.
It said that some of the blame for longer queues lies with travellers, and added that the measures are in place to protect the UK from potential new variants of Covid-19.
“Queues and wait times will be longer if passengers have not completed the necessary requirements to enter the UK,” it said in a statement.
This includes buying tests or booking hotel quarantine in advance.
Heathrow revealed on Thursday that another tough quarter has pushed the total amount the airport has lost from Covid to £2.4 billion.
The company behind the airport reported another £329 million loss in the first three months of 2021, as only 1.7 million passengers travelled through Heathrow.
The continued uncertainty caused by the Government’s policy on travel has forced the airport to reduce its forecasted passenger numbers to between 13 million and 36 million, down from 81 million in 2019, the year before the pandemic hit.
Heathrow said that as the vaccine continues to roll out and Covid-19 levels fall, restarting travel to the US and other similar markets will be “critical” for the UK’s economic recovery.
The company has slashed its cash burn in half compared with the same time last year, cutting spending on new projects by 77% over the period.