UK Politics

London 2012: Heathrow 'may not cope during Olympics'

UK Border Controls point at Heathrow
Image caption MPs warned that very long queues could deter tourists from returning to the UK in the future

Heathrow Airport may struggle to cope with extra passengers arriving during the London Olympics, MPs have warned.

Culture Select Committee chairman John Whittingdale said not enough thought seemed to have been given to ways of coping with long queues at immigration.

He said the UK Border Agency had suggested it had insufficient money to open all of its passport stations.

The now separate Border Force said it was "well-prepared... with additional staff available for busy periods".

Mr Whittingdale outlined the committee's concerns in a letter to Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Jeremy Hunt.


He said two members, Therese Coffey and Gerry Sutcliffe, had attended a briefing by Heathrow operator BAA and gathered that it saw the departure of large numbers of spectators and athletes at the end of the Games as the biggest challenge.

But Mr Whittingdale said the MPs "did not leave the briefing confident that Heathrow was ready to cope with the arrival of a huge number of competitors, Olympic family and visiting tourists in timely fashion".

The letter went on: "We understand that significant preparations have been made to accommodate unusual sporting equipment, special lanes for the Olympic family, welcoming arrangements for competitors and additional Olympic ambassadors.

"However, far less thought seems to have been given to the issue of how to deal with long queues at immigration.

"The UKBA (UK Border Agency) representative suggested that there was insufficient funding to ensure all passport stations would be open."

Mr Whittingdale continued: "While visiting tourists will understand that the Olympics is a busy time, if the wait (at immigration) is in excess of an hour it may deter tourists from returning.

"The second impact may be that planes cannot unload their passengers into the terminal due to capacity being exceeded. This would lead to circling in the air, planes being left on runways or planes blocking gates."

He also pointed out that the proportion of passengers entering Heathrow during the Games from outside the European Economic Area was likely to be "significantly higher than usual" and each of those travellers would take longer to process than someone arriving from inside Europe.

Impact on tourism

BAA said immigration waiting times during peak periods at Heathrow were "frequently unacceptable" and it had "called on Border Force to address the problem as a matter of urgency".

"There isn't a trade-off between strong border security and a good passenger experience - Border Force should be delivering both," the operator added.

The culture committee's concerns follow warnings from four airlines - British Airways, BMI, Easyjet and Virgin Atlantic - that passengers could face "severe delay and disruption" during the Olympics.

A spokesman for Border Force said it would "not compromise on border security" and was "working with BAA to ensure that we are ready to deal with extra passengers".

Labour said the situation was "very worrying" and urged Home Secretary Theresa May to review the resources available to the Border Force during the Olympics and Paralympics.

"Tourism could be adversely affected for years to come if people have to wait for an unacceptably long time to get through border control," said shadow Olympics minister Tessa Jowell.

"Failure to act will put at risk all the economic benefits that the Olympics has the potential to bring."

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