Lloyd Burr: Welcome to Heathrow, welcome to chaos

Lloyd Burr: Welcome to Heathrow, welcome to chaos
Photo credit: Getty

OPINION: Nothing says 'welcome to the country that loves queuing' better than a queue of thousands of jetlagged passengers winding its way around the corridors of Heathrow Terminal 4.

But unlike a queue to see the Lion King, or go on the London Eye, or head into Wembley Stadium - there's no excitement here, just misery.

People from places like Africa, America, Asia, New Zealand and Australia are standing or sitting, loaded with bags. All have the same look of anguish, frustration, and anger on their faces. 

Heathrow Airport is chaos.
I took these photos early on in the wait, not knowing how bad it was about to become Photo credit: Newshub.

Tired and bored kids are running around, ducking under ropes, playing chicken with those squawking airport runabout vehicles and running the wrong way up the travelators.

Parents look like they've lost the will to live as they track their kids, while others plead with Heathrow staff to fast track them through security before the tantrums start. One mother is in tears, at the end of her tether with kids in tow. 

Older travellers persevere through the pain of standing still, holding onto anything that can provide a little bit of support for this 2.5 hour-long endurance battle to the border control desks.

Heathrow Aiprort is queue chaos.
Just when you think you're at the end of the line, you turn a corner and are greeted with this Photo credit: Newshub.

Staff are walking back and forth handing out arrivals cards. Take your time, passengers, you're still hours away from 'arriving'.

"How long do you think it'll take?," I ask.

"Around two hours," she says unapologetically, as if it's the most normal thing in the world.

Other staff hand out bottles of water, which means people eventually need to go to the toilet - no easy feat if you're stuck in a queue. Desperate and undignified stuff. 

Heathrow Airport Border Force signage.
Thank you for waiting? Like we have a choice Photo credit: Newshub.

Along the sides of the queue are signs thanking us for waiting. My pleasure! It also warns us not to lose all our humanity and start abusing the staff.

The agonising wait and snailed-pace shuffle to the Border Force takes me two hours and 41 minutes from the time I stepped off the KLM Boeing 737, to the time I walked into the public arrivals hall.

Ten minutes of that is spent at the baggage carousel trying to find my bag. I've waited so long the screen no longer tells me which belt it's on. There are hundreds of other bags just lying around too. 

Heathrow Aipport desperately needs more staff and shorter wait times at arrivals.
Even the bags got sick of waiting and ended up on the floor Photo credit: Newshub.

Welcome to Heathrow Airport, the gateway to the United Kingdom and Europe, and one of the world's busiest airports.

It's unacceptable that passengers are subject to such undignified conditions. I'm surprised I didn't see anyone faint, or have an accident in the line. It was that bad.

Heathrow's biggest airline agrees
Heathrow is the home of British Airways. It's the biggest Heathrow user and Heathrow is its main base.

So it speaks volumes when British Airways (BA) blasts the current border process at Heathrow, with a spokesperson telling Newshub that visitors deserve better.

"It is totally unacceptable that returning families and visitors regularly face huge queues and a sea of people due to inadequately staffed desks and gates in the immigration hall," says the BA spokesperson.

"We understand the importance of policing our borders but what is the cost to our economy of putting off business travellers who frequently have to endure queues of two hours or more? 

"The UK needs to show it's open to the world but sadly the figures show that the queues are getting worse not better so we're urging the government to take urgent action to prevent a summer of misery for thousands of travellers."

Heathrow responds - and palms off responsibility
While Heathrow says it monitors the queues, it referred my query to the Home Office, which runs the Border Force:

"It is responsible for customs and immigration at all UK ports of entry. They are better-placed to answer your queries".

The UK government responds - and says my experience was an anomaly
The Home Office says 95 percent of non-EU passenger arrivals are processed within 45 minutes, which means the 2.5 hour wait the thousands of people experienced was a rarity.

"Millions of customers each year get through the border in much shorter timeframes," a spokesperson says.

"Every effort is made to keep delays at the border to a minimum, but we also have a duty to maintain the security of the UK border - which means checking 100 percent of scheduled arriving passengers."

However, the Home Office admits there are staffing problems, which could get worse when Britain leaves the European Union, and officers have to manually check the millions of EU citizens who travel to the UK.

"Earlier this year we launched a nationwide campaign to recruit up to 1000 additional staff," the Home Office spokesperson says.

"Border Force is in the process of recruiting an additional 300 frontline officers to ensure we can prepare for day one [of post-Brexit Britain]."

Heathrow claims to be a world-class airport. In most aspects it is: good transport links, good facilities, flights to everywhere in the world, etc.

But when it comes to the fundamental role of being a border and processing people through it, it's failing.

And if it can't handle its current arrivals, how on Earth it will manage when it builds another runway is anyone's guess.


Lloyd Burr is Newshub's Europe Correspondent