For the past week the threat of the looming Public Sector labour strike in Britain gripped airlines and airports with fear. As UK Border Agency Immigrations Officers announced they would take part in the public sector strike action today some airlines readjusted schedules, other carriers cancelled flights and London Heathrow Airport warned that passport control lines could last as long as 12 hours.
Fears of unprecedented border control delays were so severe Heathrow Airport, the busiest airport in Europe with 65,881,660 passenger enplanements in 2010, brought in snacks and bottled water to ensure passengers would be hydrated and keep their blood sugar up while standing in queues for hours.
This morning Heathrow Airport’s border control was staffed by police officers who volunteered to assist with processing passports and customs, while airline and airport personnel volunteered to assist passengers during this potentially disastrous situation … and then the first flights landed. British Airways Flight 28 from Hong Kong was the first flight to arrive at 4:38am, when it pulled into T5 and passengers reported a positive experience …
… British Airways Flight 28 was followed by Cathay Pacific Flight 251 from Hong Kong, which headed to T3, then Virgin Atlantic Flight 201, also from Hong Kong, at 4:47am, then the rest of the days flights from all over the world flowed in and passengers kept reporting the same experiences, a quick and painless experience at the airport’s passport control, with virtually no lines or delays. Many passengers tweeted that they had the most pleasant experience ever with police acting as immigrations officers, rather than the notoriously difficult Border Agency immigrations officers.
Was the BAA’s request that airlines reduce capacity and reschedule flights based on an unfounded fear that chaos would ensue at Heathrow? Were media reports that passengers could be kept on aircraft, or in passport control queues, for up to 12 hours merely hype? The answer to these questions is no, Heathrow could have been chaos.
The reason Heathrow Airport operated as smoothly as it did today is due to a number of factors, the first factor being that passengers loads were down an estimated 30% due to passengers changing flights to different dates, airlines canceling flights, reduced capacity and adjusting schedules.
Along with Heathrow’s passenger loads being decreased by 30%, police officers received a 90 minute training session on stepping in for UK Border Agency Immigrations Officers. With 90 minutes of training police officers performed the bare basics of acting as Immigrations Officers, while securing UK’s borders. The reduced workload of Police Officers provided a streamlined passenger passport screening process. While those with bogus passports, invalid visas and stories that didn’t match up with questions asked were detained or denied entry; overall the process was simplified for travelers.
Supporting passengers in different capacities were airport and airline personnel who volunteered to assist passengers in need … hundreds of extra bodies were on hand to guide passengers and provide assistance that is not normally available to travelers upon arrival at Heathrow. Heathrow Airport and the airlines prepared for the worst and ended up with a smooth operation, no delays and happy passengers.
It is great to hear passengers discuss their positive experiences with Heathrow Airport’s border control … unfortunately tomorrow everything goes back to normal and passengers will likely endure long passport control lines and the famously surly interactions with the UK Border Agency’s Immigrations Officers.