Heathrow Passport Delay Times Exaggerated, U.K. Minister Says

Reports that air travelers have been waiting for many hours to pass through passport control at London’s Heathrow Airport are exaggerated, though there are still too many delays, Britain’s immigration minister said.

“The vast majority of passengers pass through immigration control quickly,” Damian Green told lawmakers in the House of Commons today. “Over the weekend, there were some breaches of acceptable waiting times at Heathrow. This was caused mainly by the severe weather leading to flight diversions and changing flight schedules and bunching of arrivals. Queuing times bore no resemblance to some of the more wild suggestions.”

London Mayor Boris Johnson, who’s seeking re-election May 3, wrote yesterday to Home Secretary Theresa May, Green’s superior, saying that delays at BAA Ltd.’s Heathrow, Europe’s largest hub, are damaging London’s reputation. BAA said last week that recent waiting times at peak periods have been “unacceptable.” Heathrow will be the main entry point for those arriving for this summer’s Olympic Games.

Green said the longest wait for arriving passengers -- of 1 1/2 hours -- was at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 on the evening of April 27. He cited data from the U.K. Border Force as showing that target times for U.K. and European Union passengers to pass through Heathrow passport control in less than 25 minutes were met every day during the first two weeks of April. A 45-minute target for non-EU travelers was met on 11 out of 15 days.

“These times are too long,” Green said. “While we maintain the right levels of security checks, we will always seek to improve performance.”

The minister said measures being taken at Heathrow within the next few weeks would allow immigration officers to be deployed more flexibly to meet surges of demand.

“It is extremely unfortunate that, in a time of economic difficulties, when I as mayor and the government are working so hard to attract inward investment to London and the U.K., that our main port of entry is gaining such a poor reputation,” Johnson wrote to May, according to an e-mailed copy of the letter.

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