London mayor bemoans 'terrible' Heathrow delays
LONDON - Agence France-Presse
REUTERS photoMayor Boris Johnson said Monday the passport check queues of up to two hours at London's Heathrow airport were giving a "terrible impression" of Britain as the furore over the situation escalated.
The government was to make an emergency statement in parliament later Monday on the passport control queues at the world's busiest international passenger airport, which will be the main gateway for the 2012 London Olympics.
Delays of up to two hours for passengers from outside Europe were reported last week at Heathrow.
Johnson wrote to Home Secretary Theresa May to voice his "serious concern" about the difficulties, which have triggered a clash between Border Force officials and BAA, the air hub's owner and operator.
The mayor, who is standing for re-election on Thursday, said the delays gave "a terrible impression of the UK" and it was unfortunate that Britain's main port of entry was "gaining such a poor reputation".
"It is quite clear that because of problems at the UK border, London and the UK's reputation as a welcoming city in which to do business or travel are at stake." In tough economic times, "it is vital that those coming here to do business find arrival an easy and welcoming process. Anything that interferes with that damages our city," added the mayor.
Passengers waited for up to an hour at the airport on Friday to go through border control, while there were two-hour queues on Thursday for passport holders from outside the 30-country European Economic Area.
There were reports that frustrated passengers resorted to slow hand-clapping and jeering, while one fed-up traveller marched through the gates without showing his passport.
The Daily Telegraph, citing emails seen by the newspaper, said the Border Force urged BAA not to distribute "inflammatory" leaflets at Heathrow.
The leaflets told passengers they deserved better and asked them to direct their complaints to the Home Office, or interior ministry.
The wording apologised for the wait and said the airport was trying to make things "as bearable as possible".
"Both Heathrow Airport and your airline believe you deserve a warmer welcome to the UK, without compromising security," it read.
Marc Owen, the director of UK Border Agency operations at Heathrow, said the leaflet was "not all right with us" and threatened to take it up with the government.
"It is both inflammatory and likely to increase tensions in arrivals halls especially in the current atmosphere," he said in an email to BAA, according to the Telegraph.
"Please refrain from handing out or I will escalate with ministers who are likely to take a very dim view." He also urged BAA to stop people photographing the queues, after footage was broadcast on BBC television.
Meanwhile extra border staff were flown into Heathrow to help keep queues down Monday, a union official told The Times newspaper.
"A number of staff from Manchester turned up for work this morning and were herded onto a plane and flown to Heathrow. They got four hours' work out of them," said Lucy Moreton, deputy general secretary of the Immigration Services Union.
Heathrow is the official host airport for the 2012 Olympics, with around 80 percent of all visitors to the Games expected to pass through its five terminals.
The airport is building a special Games terminal for athletes departing from the Olympics and expects to have its busiest ever day on August 13, the day after the closing ceremony.