Heathrow has urged the government to “get a grip” of immigration and customs control and simplify the measures needed for international arrivals to restart mass travel from 17 May, after reporting another quarter of huge losses.
Despite a 90% drop in passengers in the first three months of 2021 to just 1.4 million people, the airport’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, said there was huge pent-up demand for travel – but a “prime concern” was how arrivals would be processed at the airport.
He said there had been “horrendous queues” due to a lack of staff in immigration halls, which are operated by the government. “The Home Office has to get a grip of Border Force and make sure that doesn’t become the bottleneck for the whole economic recovery.
“We’ve had to turn away flights because of congestion in immigration. If they struggle with less than 10% of normal volumes they are going to have to do something very different to be ready for 17 May.”
However, Border Force suggested airlines should shoulder blame for queues as passengers were not completing paperwork correctly, while automatic e-gates could not currently be used with the additional passenger locator form requirement.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are in a global health pandemic, and people should not be travelling unless absolutely necessary.
“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.
“To protect the British public and the UK vaccine rollout from new variants of concern, Border Force is checking that every passenger has complied with current health measures when arriving at the border. Passengers should currently expect queues and wait times to be longer than normal.”
Airlines, however, rejected the claims. Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, said: “The fact is that even during periods when no penalties are issued to airlines we’re still seeing border queues of several hours, which shows the problem is with Border Force resource and the clunky, complex systems passengers and airlines are being made to navigate – not least a passenger locator form that is still able to be completed incorrectly.”
He said airlines were highly compliant with rules as they could ill afford the fines they otherwise incurred, adding: “Border Force face no such penalties for poor performance and we need guarantees that the systems in place will be radically improved and properly resourced before air travel restarts.”
Under the government’s plan to ease Covid restrictions, travel could restart next month, with Heathrow and many airlines hoping that lucrative transatlantic routes could open given the relative success of the UK and US vaccination programmes. A traffic light system will be in place, with quarantine not required for the safest “green” countries with low Covid-19 rates, though testing will still be needed.
Holland-Kaye urged the government to “simplify the measures you have to go through if you’re coming from a green country – rather than having two PCR tests even if you’re doubly vaccinated.”
The airport recorded a further £329m loss in the first quarter, bringing its total losses since the start of the pandemic to nearly £2.4bn.
Holland-Kaye said the results showed how Covid had devastated the aviation sector, but he said: “By acting early to cut costs and protect cash, we have put ourselves in a strong financial position to weather the storm and are ready to welcome back passengers, while keeping them safe.”
Despite Heathrow’s losses, he said the airport was in a resilient financial position, and had reduced expenditure by 50% from a year ago, while refinancing meant it had £4.5bn in liquidity, sufficient to endure another 15 months at low-passenger volumes.