Wednesday, May 2, 2012

UK Govt Scrambles Extra Immigration Staff To Heathrow Amid Row

Government spending cuts in the U.K. have cast a pall over planning for the summer Olympics in one key respect: insufficient immigration officers at Heathrow airport confront arriving passengers with a gruelling ordeal.

Official figures show an average wait at all U.K. immigration checks now averages around 90 minutes. But Heathrow passengers have been reporting waits of two hours or even longer.

The government is now intervening to fix the problem before the world's busiest international airport will have to absorb the brunt of an estimated 600,000 overseas visitors coming to the U.K. for the July Olympic games. A key hub for travellers to and from Europe at any time, Heathrow already has been at the heart of a dispute between airlines and the government over a future strategy for U.K. aviation.

The U.K. government Tuesday scrambled to pull in extra immigration staff to the sprawling airport to cope with the throngs. This corrects staffing cuts by the U.K. Border Agency to comply with the government's broader austerity drive. The agency responsible for passport control at all ports of entry is being forced to reduce its budget by 20% by 2015 as part of the GBP79 billion in spending cuts the government is implementing to tackle the country's budget deficit. The Public and Commercial Services Union said the Border Agency has already cut 5,500 of 7,000 jobs it plans to eliminate.

The problems have been growing for weeks, but have reached a climax as celebrities, politicians and sports stars have tweeted about waits of up to two hours or more to get through immigration control at the airport.

Airlines and BAA, the operator of Heathrow, have joined the dispute, claiming it is damaging Britain's reputation as a tourist and business destination at a crucial time. The government was already at odds with airlines and business leaders after the previous government blocked plans by BAA to build a third runway.

As the government ramped up its response to the crisis, Immigration Minister Damian Green headed to Heathrow Tuesday to pledge extra staff, taken from other U.K. airports. The issue also has landed on the desk of Prime Minister David Cameron. "Clearly waiting for longer than 90 minutes at passport control is too long," a spokesman for Mr. Cameron said.

The PCSU union claims that the government needed a long-term solution to the problem that would extend beyond the Olympics.

"Drafting in staff from other areas of an already overstretched agency is like putting a sticking plaster on a serious injury, it will do nothing to stop the inevitable from happening," the union's General Secretary Mark Serwotka said. "Everyone can see that the government's obsession with austerity isn't working and that what UKBA needs is more staff, not more cuts."

The focus is now on whether airlines are prepared to help shoulder the additional costs of more customs officials to keep passengers booking through Heathrow.

Willie Walsh, the Chief Executive of International Consolidated Airlines Group S.A. (IAG.LN), which owns both British Airways and Spain's Iberia airline, said the airline was prepared to contribute to the cost of employing more Immigration staff at Heathrow previously, but had been turned down. BA, as the biggest user of Heathrow, has been badly affected by the lengthening queues.

But other airlines, already facing increased U.K. passenger taxes and the costs of the European Union's carbon emissions trading scheme, said they were unwilling to contribute. "We would be strongly opposed to airlines being forced to pay for extra border staff. The government gets more than enough money from industry already," Virgin Atlantic said in a statement.


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