London, Jun 10: The first taste of British life for most travelers landing at Heathrow Airport these days is the queue.
That long line snaking back and forth to passport control can be maddening, and even the British—masters at manners when it comes to waiting in line—are beginning to lose their patience.
Take Joan Collins, the actress who describes herself on her Twitter feed as “Much Travelled. Exhausted,” was shocked when she passed through Heathrow last month. She had a message for Home Secretary, Theresa May.
“Arrived LHR after great trip on (at)British Airways but 1000s waiting at passport control - listen up Ms. May - need more officers!”
All the bad news about queues last month sparked concerns about the fate of tourist hordes arriving for the Olympics. With the games less than 50 days away, the bad press about lines unsettled British authorities, who have been falling all over themselves to make sure that everything is ready and moving smoothly for the sporting extravaganza.
More people than ever used Heathrow last year—nearly 70 million passengers—straining an arrivals process that relies on traditional, staffed immigration desks, according to Ben Vogel, the editor of IHS Jane's Airport Review. Those lines have been blamed on the government, the airline schedules—and even the wind.
Although by many accounts the lines have eased, the relentless bad publicity has been painful for Heathrow—even though it is the border agency, not the airport operator BAA, which is responsible for slimming the queue. People who are waiting complain that desks aren't always manned—even as the numbers grow.
“Is it simply that the onset of the Olympics has made people take notice of a problem that has long existed?” Vogel said. “In a word—yes.”
The UK Border Force has promised to put on more staff during peak days leading to the Olympics, which take place from July 27-Aug. 12. They promise that they've planned—taking account of how many people are coming and when—and that all desks will be staffed during peak periods from mid-July to early August.
“We're ready,” said Marc Owen, the director of the border force for Heathrow. “We've been planning for a couple of years for a safe and secure games, doing that in partnership with BAA and the airlines. We've got the staff in place. We should be in a very strong position to have all the desks full.”
Still, it doesn't mean things are great and it is problematic when high profile people take to Twitter to vent. Al Roker of NBC's Today Show found himself waiting Tuesday—and decided to share.
“Stuck in an (sic) huge customs line,” Roker wrote on his Twitter feed. “Hope London does better with the Olympics.”
With some 500,000 visitors traveling through British airports for the games, this is a problem that needs to be solved.
The lines have raised concerns about the border agency's management—and what this will say about the country's image at the time of the games. Damian Green, the British immigration minister, has said border agents were sometimes overwhelmed when planes arrive with more passengers than expected.
But union leaders place the blame on cutbacks in staffing, enforced as part of the government's drive to reduce deficits.
Airlines flying into Heathrow normally operate at up to 80 percent capacity—but during the games it is expected it will rise even more. Aviation planners say that during the games, only aircraft with guaranteed slots can enter London airspace. Vogel suspects airlines will use bigger planes, offering more seats.
“Whether the (border agency) will cope is the proverbial elephant in the room—given the much-publicized difficulties it has already experienced this year,” Vogel said.
Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, has a lot at stake in making sure that athletes, officials and other so-called members of the “Olympic Family,” have a good experience—both coming and going. Bad public relations will shrink the bottom line, and have a boomerang effect on a country that took on the games in hopes that potential tourists would be mesmerized by Britain's many charms and want to visit.
Heathrow itself has taken a few hits in the PR realm in recent years. Baggage chaos at Terminal Five took a bit of fairy dust off the new project. And two years ago, Heathrow operator BAA and the airlines got into an ugly spat over the failure to quickly remove snow, stranding Christmas travelers.
The airport has also made huge efforts to deal with the sudden outflow of athletes at the end of the games, constructing a temporary terminal that will be used for only three days—and then torn down again.
The idea behind the so-called “Games Terminal” might seem illogical, particularly since it wasn't exactly free. The terminal is part of Olympic efforts that will cost Heathrow 20 million pounds ($31 million).
The terminal was constructed because studies suggested that departures—not arrivals—are what cause problems for Olympic airports. The athletes tend to filter in over time, sometimes months before the games, to train and get used to time differences and the like. But the bulk of them will leave Aug. 13, the day after the Closing Ceremony.
But beyond traffic flow, all the talk now is about experience—and making everybody happy. There will be improved signs to direct people. Volunteers to wave flags. Special lanes for athletes and officials. And if you believe the pictures, a Beefeater or two might be wandering around to make tourists think happy British thoughts.
But the real test will be whether people will be in the queue so long they decide to Tweet about it.