Heathrow Airport Queues Remain Cause of Concern

Long waiting times at the Heathrow Airport immigration counters are fast becoming one of the UK’s biggest nightmares, with the 2012 Olympic Games being just around the corner.

While the situation is already spiralling downwards, with travellers reporting more than two hours wait at the immigration counters manned by the UK Border Agency (UKBA), the UK government’s border control agency and a part of the Home Office, things may reach an impasse if the two unions representing immigration workers go on a strike on May 10, following a recent dispute over pension issues.

Anne Godfrey, the chief executive officer of the Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC), a professional association for UK-based travel management companies, said in an interview, ‘The current chaos at Heathrow’s border control is affecting all travellers but, as an organisation representing business travellers, we are especially concerned of the effect these delays are having on the sector.

The fast-track facility for business travel passengers – supposedly to speed things up – is a joke and makes absolutely no difference.’

A number of UK MPs have called for an explanation for the queuing problem from immigration minister, Damian Green, at a parliamentary committee meeting scheduled for May 15.

Rob Whiteman, the chief executive officer of the UK Border Agency, will also be required to explain the reasons behind the problem before the parliamentary committee and representatives from BAA Ltd, the owner and operator of London Heathrow Airport and certain representatives of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, at the May 15 meeting.

UK Border Agency to Adopt New Heathrow Queue Strategies

Heathrow Airport is facing massive queues at immigration, creating a nightmare scenario for airlines operating out of the airport, and for arriving passengers.

Earlier, the British Air Transport Association (BATA), an association of 10 UK-based major airlines and 13 small airlines, along with several members of the UK parliament, had warned that visitors to the UK could experience long delays at airport immigration counters that could lead to queues and possible airport gridlock.

Passenger delays at UK airports are likely to escalate with the large numbers of visitors expected during the upcoming 2012 London Olympic Games.

BATA had earlier stated that recent reductions of around 25 percent in the staffing levels of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) task force, the UK government’s border control agency and a part of the Home Office, coupled with stringent security measures, would lead to the slowing down of immigration queues.

To improve the situation, the UKBA, in what seems to be a desperate measure, is planning to rehire retired passport control officers to operate security checkpoints, and will spend £2.5 million on the exercise. The rehired staff will be offered travel expenses and hotel accommodation, on top of an hourly working rate, and will be working from July 2012 onwards, to help tackle the Olympics rush.

The international business community, however, has expressed its dismay at the plight of business travellers, who are routinely delayed at Heathrow and Gatwick airports in London.

Brian Moore, the head of the UK Border Force, in an interview, has said, ‘The vast majority of passengers pass through immigration control quickly. Overwhelmingly we are doing a good job on balancing getting people through whilst making sure the border remains secure. Queues are caused by a number of factors, including incorrect flight manifests or early or late planes, which result in bunching. The important factor is to have staff that are flexibly deployed in the right numbers at the right times and this is what we always try to do.’

UK Airports May Lose Out To Foreign Airports Due To Capacity Constraints

The Board of Airline Representatives (BAR UK), a UK-based industry association of UK airline operators, has said that Heathrow Airport in London is operating under capacity constraints, which may cause global airlines to forgo fights to the UK.

A survey conducted by the association has revealed that around 53 percent of airlines surveyed will be increasing their services to other countries, instead of the UK, due to capacity constraints at UK airports. However, 86 percent of the airlines are interested in increasing their services to the UK, if Heathrow Airport was able to offer them more free slots.

The survey by Frontier Economics, supporting recent research, has found that around twenty-one emerging market destinations do not have a daily flight from Heathrow, but are connected with other European airline hubs.

This may have a direct effect on UK foreign trade, as around 20 times more trade is carried out with emerging market nations that have a direct daily flight to the UK than with those nations not having a direct flight. It is estimated that he UK economy may lose around £14bn in the next decade because of lack of trade with these emerging markets.

Mike Carrivick, the association chief executive officer, said, ‘UK business leaders should be very concerned about the restrictions on reaching new markets at such a critical time in the UK recovery effort. The survey’s results are a chilling reminder that the Government must act decisively, and soon, in the national interest. Restricting capacity at key airports to the same level as the last decade is actively encouraging airlines and trade to go elsewhere.’

Visitors to UK Advised To Book Car Rentals Early Before 2012 Olympics Commences

With the 2012 Olympic Games less than 100 days away, the UK based car rental comparison website, Carrentals.co.uk, has advised overseas visitors to book their rentals in the UK well in advance.

The company has stated that its website has registered a considerable increase in car rental bookings at important UK destinations around the 2012 Olympics venues and dates.

The website statistics indicate that six times more US visitors have booked their rentals in the UK between July 20 and August 12, 2012, than for the same period last year. Around 40 percent of US visitor rentals are from the Gatwick or Heathrow airports in London, emphasising the importance placed on being in close proximity to the London Games from day one.

The figures also indicate a particular spike in bookings for July 20 to 21, 2012, which is thought to be due to the increasing numbers of visitors to UK for the Games’ opening ceremony, to be held in London, on July 27, 2012. Most car rentals during this period are for 10 to 12 days, which infers that visitors are also intending to include a UK-based vacation before the Games begin.

The company managing director, Gareth Robinson, said, ‘Our figures show a clear increase in car rental bookings around the time of the Olympics and this is likely to increase further as we get closer to the games. The UK really is the place to be this summer with many Americans making the 2012 Olympics their summer holiday.

Train journeys can be expensive and are likely to be very busy during the games – possibly not ideal for families and larger groups. The option of renting a car gives more flexibility, especially when travelling to different events either in London or around the UK. Those booking early can make significant savings while having a wider choice of vehicles and essential extras such as child seats and sat navs.’

European Commission Releases Statement on bmi Sale

The European Commission (EC), the executive body for the European Union, has released a statement defending its decision to approve the sale of British Midland International (bmi), an airline owned by Germany-based Lufthansa, to British International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent company of British Airways.

Earlier Virgin Atlantic, an airline subsidiary of UK-based Virgin Group, had announced its intention to appeal against the sale of bmi, although the sales process will not be affected by this appeal. Virgin Atlantic has claimed that the EC has approved the sale too quickly, and the 14 airport slots that BA are giving up at Heathrow airport, as a proviso of the £172.5 million deal, were insufficient to ensure healthy competition in the UK aviation market.

In a statement, the EC has clarified its stand by saying, ‘We are confident that the commitments proposed by IAG address all competition issues identified and we stand by our decision to clear the transaction subject to these conditions.

In this case, a decision was reached in 35 working days, which is not particularly fast. For example, out of 319 adopted merger and acquisition decisions in 2011, 98 percent were adopted within this timeframe.

Moreover, as described in our best practices guidelines, the commission held in-depth pre-notification contacts with the parties as early as November 2011, well before the notification took place on February 10, 2012.’

Virgin Atlantic will be able to appeal to the General Court of the EU within two months of publication of a full report by the EC on the sale of bmi to IAG.

British Airways takeover will lead to 1,200 job losses at BMI

The takeover of BMI buy the parent company of British Airways (IAG) will lead to a possible 1,200 job losses, the company announced today.

The takeover was approved by the European Commission in March 2012 after the Commission looked into the integration of the two airlines operations at Heathrow Airport.

Most of the job losses will be at BMI’s head office at Castle Donington in Derbyshire.  However, British Airways were keen to stress that up to 1,500 jobs have been saved by the takeover, including 1,100 cabin crew, pilots and engineers and up to 400 passenger service personnel at Heathrow’s Terminal 1.

Keith Williams, British Airways’ chief executive, said ‘BMI is heavily loss making and is not a viable business as it stands today. Our proposals would secure around 1,500 jobs that would otherwise have been lost. As we look to restructure the business and restore profitability, job losses are deeply regrettable but inevitable. We will work with the unions to explore as many options as possible and are already working with industry partners.’

He also said ‘This deal is good news for our customers and will offer new destinations, new routes and new schedules in due course. For customers with BMI bookings to or from Heathrow this summer, it is business as usual and customers can continue to book with confidence.’

BMI was previously owned by German carrier Lufthansa and had been losing over £150m per year before the takeover, carrying 3 million passengers per year and flying to 25 countries around Europe.

British MPs Warn of Airport Gridlock during London Olympics 2012

Members of Britain’s Parliament have warned of a possible gridlock of British Airports during the London Olympic Games, which commence in July this year.

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons is warning of overcrowding at UK airports during the London Olympic Games. Two members of the committee, Therese Coffey and Gerry Sutcliffe, are said to have attended a BAA (operator of six British Airports) briefing where the company expressed its concerns over handling the departure of international athletes after the closing ceremony.

The members of parliament have claimed that while much has been done for accommodating ‘unusual sporting equipment, arranging special lanes for the Olympic family, and welcoming arrangements for competitors and Olympic ambassadors’, there still exists an issue of dealing with long queues at the airport immigration desks.

The UK Border Agency (UKBA), the agency responsible for passport control counters at UK airports, has, in recent times, reduced its task force by around 25 percent, and the MPs are concerned that this could result in a negative impact on Britain’s tourism industry, as visitors may be discouraged from visiting the UK due to long queues at the airport, leading to delayed flights and overcrowding at the terminals.

The members have also felt an acute absence of any kind of contingency plan to deal with airport overcrowding, and hence gridlock remains a heightened possibility.

A letter to culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, signed by committee chairman, John Whittingdale, said, ‘We are aware that our sister committees, on Transport, and Home Affairs, have a strong interest in these issues and, may raise them with the relevant departments before the start of the Games. However, we wished to draw our concerns to your attention, as Minister with overall responsibly for the success of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games.’

Emirates Airline Offers To Fly ‘Silent’ Airbus Fleet on Heathrow Night Flights

UAE-based airline company, Emirates Airline, has offered to operate nighttime flights to help increase the capacity of Heathrow Airport in the UK, by using the quieter Airbus A380s for overnight operations.

The airline’s Airbus A380 super-jumbo airplane fleet is capable of a steeper landing descent than other airplanes, which may lessen noise pollution close to the airport. However the airline is also proposing an increase in its operating hours out of the airport, by augmenting its daily flights to Dubai, UAE, to seven from Heathrow, instead of the current five.

Currently Heathrow Airport is only authorised to allow 15 flights per night for the summer season, which commences in April and runs until October, less than Gatwick Airport’s 50 flights per night and Stansted Airport’s 32 flights per night.

The UK government’s review of aviation policy will be commencing its preliminary consultations in the summer, and Emirates Airline is planning its aircraft schedules as part of its extended cooperation with the UK government. The noise regulations for Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports were all set to expire in October 2012, but have recently been extended to expire in October 2014.

Earlier, UK aviation minister, Theresa Villiers, said in a statement, ‘As a first step to replace the current regime in 2014, we will launch a first-stage consultation later this year which will seek detailed evidence of the effectiveness of the current regime including costs and benefits and airlines’ fleet replacement plans. This will be followed by a second consultation next year which will enable us to take account of adopted policy when developing our specific proposals.’

Virgin Atlantic Announces Plans to Acquire Vacant Heathrow Slots

Virgin Atlantic, an airline subsidiary of UK-based Virgin Group, intends to bid for the acquisition of 12 slot pairs at London Heathrow Airport in UK.

The airline is keen to acquire the slots to facilitate its plans to commence short-haul services between Scotland and Heathrow, in the UK. The airport slots will come available when British Airways’ parent company, International Airlines Group (IAG), gives them up as part of its merger with BMI, British Midland International, an airline formerly owned by Lufthansa, a German airline company.

Virgin Atlantic chief commercial officer, Julie Southern, reportedly said in a discussion with Travel Weekly, ‘We will bid for all the slots. We have always provided competition to BA. That is Richard’s (Sir Richard Branson’s) raison d’etre. We believe we can provide point-to-point services. It would be an extension of our network using different aircraft.’

The airline also intends to use the airport slots for new services to Cairo, Riyadh, Nice and Moscow.

Julie Southern has also expressed her dismay at the EU competition commissioner’s decision on IAG’s acquisition of BMI, saying, ‘IAG won the go ahead for its GBP172 million deal to buy BMI from Lufthansa at the end of March. We find it hard to believe the full ramifications can have been investigated in such a short period. The whole process has been pretty disappointing.
We want all 12 (airport slots). We will wait to see the full judgment. There are so many aspects: can we get hold of them? What are the strings? Are there constraints? We are puzzled as to why the slots are in two groups. It would be sub-optimal for anyone to operate (only some of the slots). We feel all 12 should stay together.’

Other companies could also bid for the slots as and when they come available, with Aer Lingus one likely contender.

Olympic athletes given priority treatment over passengers at Heathrow

One of this years biggest events – the Olympic Games is set to be a national celebration of sporting excellence, however it seems that the games is set to cause delays at Heathrow airport frustrating UK travellers.


UK Border Agency policy documents, warn of long queues at Heathrow Airport due to the high number of visitors expected to enter the country ahead of and during the tournament in July and August. This volume of visitors may lead to non-Olympic passengers being held up, as priority treatment will be given to travellers connected to the game.

 

The documents warn that delays may be caused by the collection of biometric data on incoming passengers, including fingerprints.

 

A ‘key risks’ section in the document states:

 

The collection of biometric may result in passengers being unduly delayed passing through border control’.

 

Dedicated lanes and the time taken to collect the biometric of GFM (Games Family Members) may result in delays to non-Olympic passenger journeys’.

 

25,000 athletes, officials and coaches could be given priority treatment if a new fast-track scheme is introduced.

 

To cope with the huge numbers of passengers, airport immigration staff will be transferred from their normal duties to help.

 

Heathrow is set to handle 80 per cent of Olympic-related traffic, including athletes, kit, officials, sponsors and media.

 

The day after the closing ceremony August 13 is set to be the most difficult day for the airport, with around 218,000 bags set to pass through the airport.

 

A spokesman for Heathrow said the airport will be ready to cope with the extra crowds.

 

Around 15 per cent of bags will be outsize sporting equipment, such as canoes, vaulting poles or bikes, which cannot be processed through normal baggage systems”.

 

Options being considered to manage the extra demand include baggage drop facilities at the Olympic Village, shipping some baggage as freight and construction of a temporary ‘Olympic terminal’, which would be taken down after the Games”.

 

Colin Matthews, BAA chief executive added:

 

London 2012 will be Heathrow’s greatest challenge”.

 

Article by Charlotte Greenhalgh