London’s Heathrow airport is grappling with a record passenger surge as competitors begin arriving for the Olympics amid mounting concern about travel and security arrangements for an event that starts next week.
Europe’s top air hub anticipates attracting 236,955 people today, 47,000 more than the average and 3,393 more than on July 31 last year, when the previous record was set. The surge has increased demands on the already stretched U.K. Border Force, while travelers to central London will find the main M4 highway restricted by the opening of a special lane for Olympic VIPs.
Britain’s Olympic preparations are subject to increased scrutiny after G4S Plc said last week it couldn’t meet the terms of a 284-million pound ($441 million) contract to recruit 13,700 guards for the Games, forcing the government to assign 3,500 extra soldiers to provide emergency security. About 500 multi-lingual volunteers will greet arrivals from more than 50 countries at Heathrow today, according to its owner BAA Ltd.
“Today heralds the start of Britain’s biggest peacetime transport challenge and Heathrow’s busiest-ever period,” Nick Cole, BAA’s head of Olympic planning, said in a statement.
Of today’s 1,027 Games-related arrivals, 335 will be athletes, BAA said. That number should peak on July 24, with 1,262 competitors and coaches arriving out of 3,008 people linked with the competition, excluding tourists, while the busiest 24 hours of all will come on Aug. 13, the day after the closing ceremony, when people will rush to leave, it said.
Competitors from countries including the U.S., Russia, the Netherlands, Cuba and the Ivory Coast arrived this morning, BAA spokesman Simon Baugh said, with Heathrow’s baggage carousels coping as planned with sports gear including sails from yachting teams, and immigration queues lasting no more than 25 minutes.
Activity was focused on Terminal 4, the main base of SkyTeam alliance members such as Dutch carrier KLM and Moscow-based OAO Aeroflot, while most media and sponsors flew to the British Airways-dedicated Terminal 5, he said.
Athletes also received accreditation for the Olympic Village in east London before boarding buses there or to various training venues. Their journey became less smooth once they hit the roads, with activation of a 3.5-mile “Games Lane” on the M4 motorway insufficient to overcome all disruption from emergency road repairs and an accident during the morning rush hour.
A tweet ostensibly from U.S. sprinter and hurdler Kerron Clement said that he and teammates were “lost on the road for four hours,” adding: “Not a good first impression of London.” The message didn’t say where the delays had occurred, or why.
Games organizer Locog said in an e-mailed statement that while “there may have been one or two journeys taking longer than planned, the vast majority were completed successfully.”
The M4 Games Lane, open to Olympic participants, sponsors, officials, dignitaries, the international media and black cabs, won’t be operational round the clock, though people traveling for non-Olympic reasons face disruption, said Stuart Thompson, spokesman for the Department for Transport’s Highways Agency.
The former bus-only route was suspended by Britain’s coalition government in 2010 after it was blamed for slowing other vehicles. Further Olympic-only lanes will open next week, aimed at speeding competitors and officials between venues.
“The key thing is for people to plan their journeys and leave as early as they can or use public transport,” Thompson said. “It’s important that we are able to get the athletes and the Games family to and from events.”
Roads are about 20 percent busier today, with traffic likely to increase as more visitors arrive, according to local authority-controlled Transport for London, which predicts that congestion will worsen as the Olympic torch reaches the capital next weekend before easing off when people realize they need to change their travel habits. Something similar happened last month, when road journeys fell by about 50 percent during Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, TfL estimates.
London has spent 6.5 billion pounds improving its subway, rail, tram and cycling infrastructure, according to the office of Mayor Boris Johnson.
G4S Chief Executive Officer Nick Buckles will appear before lawmakers tomorrow to explain the company’s staffing shortfall. Shares of the Crawley, England-based company fell as much as 10 percent today, the steepest decline since Oct. 17, after it said a 50 million-pound loss may be incurred from the failure.
Prime Minister David Cameron, commenting on security concerns, told reporters in Birmingham that the government “will do whatever it takes to deliver a safe Olympic Games.” That’s after Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt told BBC television yesterday that G4S management had insisted “right up until last week that everything was on track.”
Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said today on a conference call that the shortfall in security guards had “been handled well” by the London 2012 organizers, who had been “very flexible and very adaptive.”
Still, Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, says protestations that ministers aren’t to blame “won’t wash” and is seeking a probe once the Games are over.
Waiting times at Heathrow’s immigration desks have been within targets set by the Home Office since new resources were added yesterday, BAA said in its statement. The airport operator said April 27 that waiting times had reached unacceptable levels after the Border Force was split from the Border Agency on March 1 with a brief to impose more rigorous checks.