Gwyn Topham, The Guardian, April 12, 2012
The Olympics could be a challenge too far for Heathrow's strained capacity and border agency staff, MPs have warned.
The Commons culture, media and sport committee has raised the spectre of long immigration queues and planes unable to unload passengers this summer. In a leaked letter to the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the committee's chairman, John Whittingdale, says delays would "deter tourists from returning".
Two committee members were briefed by Heathrow's owner, BAA, which expressed the common view of airport operators that the border agency was making passengers wait too long.
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 said that, although the airport had made significant preparations to accommodate sporting equipment and to welcome competitors and officials, "far less thought seems to have been given to the issue of how to deal with long queues at immigration".
It added: "The U.K. border agency representative suggested that there was insufficient funding to ensure all passport stations would be open."
While airports have been competing to improve the time passengers spend in arrivals and departures with check-in, security and baggage reclaim, passport control is out of their remit. Leading airlines recently demanded the home secretary, Theresa May, took action over the "mismatch between policy and resource" with a shortage of border agency staff to carry out the rigorous passport checks demanded by the Home Office.
BAA said : "Immigration waiting times during peak periods at Heathrow are frequently unacceptable and we have called on Border Force to address the problem as a matter of urgency."
The MPs also drew attention to the possibility of planes being kept from unloading because of crowding. Whittingdale said: "This would lead to circling in the air, planes being left on runways or planes blocking gates."
The industry warned last month that unless urgent action was taken there would be a significant risk of severe delay and disruption at all London's airports if any such problems arose, with huge amounts of extra traffic in the airspace.
The air traffic control service Nats says there will be 3,000 extra business jets during the Olympics. It is pressing the government and regulator for changes to its mandate to allow it to prioritise larger passenger aircraft should the need arise. Currently all aircraft get equal treatment. Paul Haskins of Nats said: "Business jets and extra flights will be filling in the usual troughs in demand, taking up the spare capacity." Controllers fear that the resilience of the system cannot be guaranteed with extra volumes of traffic, especially with the potential for military jets – on alert for the Olympics – to demand air corridors to patrol any perceived unusual activity.