Scenes like those described by this eye-witness (quoted in the Times) may become commonplace in British airports over the next few months if the hold-ups at passport control continue. He was referring to events last month, when, after queuing for two hours, 20 or so angry passengers barged through passport control at Birmingham Airport.
Naturally the authorities insist all is well: “The majority of passengers pass through immigration control quickly. Queues are cause by a number of factors, including incorrect flight manifests or early or late planes, which result in bunching.”
Now, the longest queues I have experienced were in the early morning, when five transatlantic flights arrived within twenty minutes, all of them at their scheduled time. I can’t say I noticed any extra staff on duty, or any other measures to deal with this entirely predictable influx of travellers – perhaps they counted on sleep-deprivation rendering us docile for the (extensive) duration.
However, as the Olympic nonsense approaches, I have noticed a vast increase in the number of automatic passport control gates – together with increasingly desperate invitations for us to avail ourselves of them where possible, now, please.
Well, I’m not trying that again. A few years ago, in response to an invitation (in other words, being seized by a uniformed official cruising the queues for victims with new-style passports) I was shepherded towards some disturbingly agricultural-looking machinery – cattle crush? Sheep-dip? - passport in hand.
And would it work? Ha! They tried everything - polishing the scanner, cleaning my photo, even turning the passport upside-down (did that mean I would have to stand on my head?) – but to no avail; eventually they checked the passport manually at a desk and I was spewed out into the concourse with everyone else.
I had another try next time I was travelling and had a bit of time to kill – same result. From then on, I resolved to avoid the things like the plague, amusing myself instead by watching through the glass as other travellers had the same experience. In fact, the gates seem largely unused, despite the fact that all UK passports issued since January 2007 are supposed to work in them.
I suspect the hand of a statistician in this. ‘Let us install the gates!’, was surely the cry: ‘By 2012, 50% of the population will be able to pass through them and we will need half as many officers at the desks. Build it and they will come!’
Only they won’t, because their photos won’t scan properly, or because they have children with them (the gates are adults-only), or because they don’t want to be split up from a travelling companion with an old-fashioned steam-driven passport. Or maybe even because they don't like or trust the new machinery - deep down, there's a bit of the Luddite in us all.
So the lines of gates stand idle while the staff, their numbers doubtless reduced over the past five years in anticipation of the glorious march of technology, struggle to cope with a sea of increasingly discontented humanity. Small wonder, then, that turbulence is starting to appear.
And the Olympics may yet unleash a perfect storm.
Update: from the Telegraph, describing lengthy delays at Heathrow over the weekend:
'The difficulties were exacerbated by a series of technology glitches including the failure of a finger print machine, used to check passengers who require a visa to enter Britain.That being so, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that the director of UK Border Agency operations at Heathrow has demanded that BAA stop handing out leaflets explaining the complaints procedure and told them to 'stop passengers taking pictures of the queues in the arrivals hall'.
On other occasions both the iris recognition and new automatic passport scanning gates failed, adding to the frustration of new arrivals.