Here at the Operations Room, we like queues — not so much standing in them but talking about them. Indeed, about the only thing better than us talking about queues would be if queues became a political issue and people with impressive job titles were forced to talk about them.
And that is exactly what is happening in the United Kingdom.
The queues in question are for clearing passport control at Heathrow. Apparently, wait times have been creeping up, passengers are complaining, and everyone is getting nervous about what this will look like when the world descends on London for the Olympics. According to the Globe and Mail, the source of the problem is a confluence of ramped up security and staff cuts (Long queues at Heathrow spark concern, Apr 30).
The long queues are caused by a combination of tougher passport checks, after last autumn’s row about the Border Force relaxing procedures too far, and staff cuts at the agency. The Home Office is reducing the force’s manpower by about 18 per cent from 2010 to 2015.
Damian Green, the Home Office minister, told MPs on Monday that it was important to maintain a balance between security and putting on a good first impression for visitors arriving at Heathrow.
He said in the Commons that his officials’ study of the position last week showed that claims of border desk queues were exaggerated and the longest queue was at Terminal 5 at Heathrow last Friday, where non-EU passengers were forced to wait for 90 minutes. The queues were “significantly less” for EU and U.K. arrivals, he added.
Of course, there is some dispute about just how bad waits are. The Daily Mail (Millions could face airport delays this summer as Border Agency crisis continues, May 1) reports that waits might be far worse than Minister Green is letting on.
However, leaked documents revealed that limits for waiting times at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 were broken 107 times in just two weeks.
The official 45-minute waiting time for passengers from outside Europe arriving at Terminal 3 was broken 82 times in the first two weeks of April. The longest wait faced by non-European passengers was 91 minutes.
European passport holders, including British travellers, had to wait longer than the 25-minute limit on five occasions. There were even 20 delays at the fast-track ‘e-gates’.
Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways’ parent company IAG has launched a tirade against the Border Agency’s ‘pathetic’ performance and furious tourists caught in the queues have sworn not to visit the UK again.
The BBC has a fun interview with both Minister Green and the aforementioned Mr. Walsh that is well worth a listen.
There are a couple of interesting points here. First, we would be remiss if we failed to point out that Heathrow has never really been known for great customer service. Indeed, Gady has commented on the process of clearing customer there in this very forum.
Second, in the BBC interview, the minister explains how they track the wait times at customs by once an hour giving a passenger card that is then turned in to the agent when he or she reaches the front of the queue. (The TSA uses a similar methodology to determine wait times to clear security in at US airports.) One question that then comes up is whether they are actually capturing enough data. In the Daily Mail article, Walsh asserts that they sample less than 0.2% of passengers and that the resulting data is statistically meaningless. While I would wager that Mr. Walsh could not properly define what it means to be statistically meaningless, I think he may have point. As we have noted before, it is actually hard to collect a meaningful amount of data here. The pattern of arriving passengers will vary with the time of day, day of week, and time of year. The waiting times would also change with staffing levels. In the BBC interview, Mr. Walsh asserts that they have video surveillance so it should be possible to accurately measure waits. Fair enough, but if that results in new staffing patterns, then it may be back to the drawing board to determine the expected waits.
The BBC interview also draws comparisons between clearing customs and clearing security when passengers arrive at the airport. Waits to clear security are (it is implied) manageable at Heathrow, so why can’t waits for customs similarly be tolerable? (Aside: Why are waits security waits not out of hand? Because the airport operator gets fined if they are not.) There is, of course, a big difference between clearing customs and clearing security. Arrivals to customs are going to be much more peaked. Many passengers from North America fly to London on red eyes. That means many, many planes will be landing at around the same time. In contrast people departing from the airport will not be arriving in batches of several hundred. (We made a similar point in a post about clearing customs at US airports.)
So what are the Brits to do? The government is now promising improved staffing (Cameron tells ministers ‘to grip’ Heathrow queues problem, May 1, BBC).
[Mr Green] said airports were taking significant steps to ensure the right channels were open at the right time.
A new central control room is being established at Heathrow to mobilise teams of border staff at terminals where queues may be beginning to build up.
A new rota system would begin in May which will make the system more flexible, and he guaranteed that all border control desks would be fully manned during the London Olympic Games, which start on 27 July.
BBC home affairs correspondent Tom Symonds said he understood additional staff were brought in from Manchester on Monday, although the travelling involved meant they were only on duty for four hours.
So a better staffing policy could certainly make a difference. As could having flexibility to move agents from one terminal to another. In theory, there shouldn’t be too much of a surprise about how many passengers are arriving when. They just need to know the airlines’ schedules and some idea of how full planes are. In reality, actual arrivals can deviate from scheduled time for a myriad of reasons. An issue might be whether there is sufficient space to add more agents. From a perception point of view, it would at least be the case that all desks would be staffed.