Airlines gave a mixed reaction to reports they will be asked to pay for extra border staff at airports following severe delays to inbound passengers at Heathrow.
A British Airways spokesman said: “Border Force funding is a red herring. UK air passengers pay the highest flight taxes in the world and airlines at Heathrow already pay charges that have increased about 50% over the last five years.
“The government needs to take action to stop the damage to the UK’s reputation.”
Willie Walsh, chief executive of BA parent International Airlines Group, said: “We are prepared to pay where we get the right service. We are not prepared to pay a government that will waste money and not address the problem.
“The government is both the regulator and the service provider and is doing an inadequate job in both.”
Walsh said there was evidence some passengers waited two and a half hours last Friday, contradicting government claims that non-EU passengers waited about 90 minutes for passport checks at Terminal 5.
The government blamed “severe weather” for the delays. However, leaked data showed passport queues at another Heathrow terminal broke official time limits more than 100 times in the first two weeks of April.
These limits specify a maximum 45-minute wait for non-EU passengers and 25-minute maximum for EU passport holders. Walsh described the limits as “pathetic”.
There was confusion about where the move to make airlines contribute to border control costs came from.
The Financial Times reported Prime Minister David Cameron backed the plan and quoted two unnamed government officials in support. One said: “The real answer is to get the airlines to pay for more security.”
However, immigration minister Damian Green maintained the government had not seen the plan, which he said was being discussed by Heathrow operator BAA and airlines.
Mike Carrivick, chief executive of the Board of Airline Representatives, said he had not seen the plan referred to by the Financial Times. He told Travel Weekly: “We need to see the plan and it would need to go through a formal process. But it is difficult to see why the cost of failure should be passed on to airlines.
“The Border Force already has the space in airport immigration halls provided free and there are huge costs to airlines in providing passenger data in advance of flights taking off to the UK. The question is why, with all this data, there are still barriers that have to be overcome.”
Green visited Heathrow yesterday and announced 80 extra staff were being drafted in to cut queues. The BBC reported border staff flown down from Manchester on Monday were only on duty for four hours because of the travelling involved..
Green also revealed plans for a new control centre to improve efficiency.
Speaking at a visit to the London airport, he said: “The queues that we have been seeing recently are too long and the number of actions we’re taking… are all designed to mitigate the problem, to eliminate it altogether whenever we can and to make sure that as the summer increase in passengers arrive, we can control it.”
Walsh told Sky News: “Our customers are saying this is unacceptable, the queues are far too long and it is happening on a regular basis. Damian Green and the government need to understand the scale of the problem and it is only by understanding it and accepting it that we will be confident that they can resolve it.”
A spokesman for Heathrow owner BAA said: “We are encouraged by the announcement of additional border resources for Heathrow and welcome the new sense of urgency being shown by the government to tackle this problem.”
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