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Large Queues and Delays at Heathrow Cause Chaos for Travellers

Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought havoc on the travel industry, causing travel agents, airlines, airports, tourist attractions, and hotels to struggle to survive. According to the statistics published by the ONS, air passenger numbers fell by a whopping 98% when the pandemic took hold last year. In February 2020, around 6.8 million people arrived in the UK, but by April, this was down to 112,300. There has been some recovery in recent months, but overall volumes of air passengers are still low. There were approximately 630,000 air passenger arrivals to the UK in January 2021, which was still 91% lower than the previous year. From a financial perspective, the pandemic has been devastating for Heathrow, which at the end of April reported a £3.4bn loss. Despite the huge reduction in air passenger numbers, there are reports of large queues developing at Heathrow, causing misery and inconvenience for thousands of travellers. In this article, we will look at how one of the world's busiest airports, Heathrow, is coping with the COVID-19 checks they are required to complete.

Heathrow COVID-19 Checks Are ‘Untenable’

Whereas it is normal for heads of business to put a brave face on matters and convey confidence, the delays at Heathrow due to COVID-19 checks have become so acute that even its senior management are saying the situation is becoming ‘untenable’. Chris Garton, chief solutions officer at Heathrow, who was recently asked to speak to the government’s transport committee, explained that some travellers arriving into the UK through Heathrow were now facing delays of up to six hours.

The delays are being caused by the considerable increase in checks which the UK Border Force is now required to undertake on arrivals. Responding to reports of serious delays at Heathrow, the Border Force stated, “Border Force has ensured it has the right level of resources to check that passengers are compliant with our border health measures, but queues and wait times will currently be longer as we undertake these vital checks to keep us all safe”. It appears that on the one hand, the airport is blaming the delays on the lack of border officials, while the government is denying this, stating that problem is to be expected.

If The Airports Can’t Cope Now, How Will They Cope From 17th May?

All of this raises the question of what will happen if international travel restrictions are relaxed on 17th May 2021. Mr Garton is certainly concerned, stating that the border queues will become much larger if and when the government relaxes the rules. Heathrow’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, has recently told the media that the Home Office and UK Border Force “need to get a grip” before the relaxation of the travel rules on 17th May.

Mr Holland Kaye told Sky News, “We are focused on 17th May, we are getting ready to open up then, working with the airlines to make sure we can give a really warm welcome to passengers. But the key question is whether Border Force will be ready to receive those passengers when they come into the country, so they have a smooth journey through the airport and not the kind of lengthy queues that unfortunately we have seen too often in recent weeks. I am deeply concerned about that, they [Border Force] are struggling to cope with even the few thousand travellers coming in at the moment and all the additional checks they have to carry out. They either need to change that system or have more Border Force officers on the desks”.

If this wasn’t enough of a warning, the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus have recently said that airports are a “breeding ground” for the COVID-19 virus because you have arrivals from green, amber, or red countries mixing together. Not only this, but because the queues are already so large, the airport authorities cannot maintain social distancing within the building, according to Chris Garton.

In response, Grant Shapps, the Minister for Transport, has told parliament that there are plans to automate the checking of COVID test forms and to allow passengers to use e-gates. The government believes this will mitigate many of the delays associated with the current manual test form checks being carried out. They are also advising travellers only to travel if necessary and to ensure they have completed the requirements to enter the UK. The problem with this logic is that when travellers are allowed to go on holiday, this will no longer be classed as essential travel. The Home Office is also placing responsibility on the airlines to only allow passengers to travel if they have the correct paperwork. On this matter, a Home Office spokesperson has said, “Queues and wait times will be longer if passengers have not completed the necessary requirements to enter the UK. Airlines are responsible for making sure that their passengers have completed all the necessary requirements, and airports have a crucial responsibility for ensuring travellers can social distance at passport control”.

Ultimately, all stakeholders are going to have to work together to ensure that airports are not overloaded after 17th May 2021. Given that passenger numbers are down nearly 90% and they are still struggling suggests that another 10% increase may swamp them completely. It is possible that with a combination of improved traveller awareness, stringent checks by airline check-in staff, e-gates, automated test checks, and more Home Office Border Force staff, it may be that the queues can be managed. As we have mentioned in previous articles, given the government’s track history when it comes to IT technology, the automation solution mentioned by Grant Shapps may be more of an aspiration than a reality.

Final Words

When the government announces its plans to relax the international travel rules in May 2021, we can expect large border queues due to the increase in the number of checks required. The measures above should help reduce these, but it is also likely that the public will need to reset their expectations and bring a book with them for a long airport wait, both when departing and returning.

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