UK Border Authority orders Heathrow to suppress evidence of massive customs queues

The UK Border Authority has ordered Heathrow Airport's management to stop handing out leaflets apologising for the gigantic customs queues at its terminals and advising them to contact UKBA to complain. UKBA has also ordered the airport to stop passengers from documenting these queues with photographs. I came into Heathrow T5 on April 13, and was stuck in an hour-long line just to get into the customs hall, where we were sorted into EU/non-EU passports, and took a picture or two. At the time, uniformed employees were telling us that non-EU passport holders could expect to wait five hours to clear customs. The Guardian's Ben Quinn reports:

The airport operator was also told to prevent passengers taking pictures in the arrivals hall, according to the Daily Telegraph, which obtained correspondence from Marc Owen, director of UKBA operations at Heathrow. Pictures of lengthy queues have been posted on Twitter by frustrated travellers.

Owen said: "The leaflet … is both inflammatory and likely to increase tensions in arrivals halls especially in the current atmosphere. It is inappropriate in that it is not for you to display how to complain on our behalf. Please refrain from handing out [the leaflets] or I will escalate [the matter] with ministers who are likely to take a very dim view. I know there are copies in the hall and your troops are ready with them."

Jim Fitzpatrick, Labour's aviation spokesman, said: "This is a pure coverup. I can understand people wanting to take pictures of the queues. This is further evidence of Border Force trying to hide the severity of the problem.

"Passengers need to know how to register complaints and for Border Force to try to prevent them doing so is outrageous."

UKBA accused of covering up airport delays


  1. how on earth are people entering the country, via Heathrow, supposed to coordinate their travel arrangements, which in some cases could mean others travelling for hours to comoe fetch them, only to have to wait for hours more!!

    this is absurd, and suggests ridiculous management on behalf of the airport and customs.  honestly – how are they managing to screw up this badly??

    1. >how are they managing to screw up this badly??

      The head of the service is the answer. A few weeks ago, when unions predicted the chaos, the BBC interviewed him at length (on Radio 4, The World At One). It only took a minute to understand why he is so hated. Imagine a billionaire third world dictator who smiles while looking for ways to hurt you. “There are no problems. Everyone is happy in my country. Who says otherwise? Give me their names.”

      At least, that’s how he sounded.

      1. British Rail was doomed to failure by geography, much like Japanese rail was almost bound to historical succuss by the same sorts of factors. (Although in modern decades they still found ways to fail anyways, the clever bastards.)

        Britain has major cities in a crazy quilt pattern all across heavily varied terrain, while Japan has almost all of theirs in a straight line down a single coastline with agreeable terrain. General rule with trains, the more crossed lines you have, the harder it is to manage.

        1. Wh… whaaa? Tokyo alone is more hilly than most of England (not Britain)! England is a tiny, densely populated place (average population density higher than Japan) that can be traversed in like 5 hours; it would be perfect for a highly efficient hub-and-spoke layout. Japan’s main islands are about 2,000 km long and still manage to have decent train service from Sapporo all the way to Hiroshima and Yamaguchi some 2,000 km away, half of it through sparsely populated areas, most of it in high-speed trains (Shinkansen). It ain’t cheap though; flying is cheaper in most cases.

          It’s all about priorities if you ask me.

          Edit: want a country with a decent railway system that’s roughly comparable in terms of size, general shape, population and density? Try South Korea. Not as good as Japan but not bad, either. And they did most of the good stuff in the last 30-odd years.

          1. Oh no, somebody is wrong on the Internet. Population density Japan: 337 people/km2. UK: 255 people/km2


            (Korea: 487 p/km2, almost double the density of the UK)

            Update: Ah yes, the English counties together have a pop dens. of 395 p/km2. But that is not a country — you can’t cherry-pick bits of a place.


          2. Oh no, somebody doesn’t know that England != UK! Even though I explicitly said as much in my first sentence.

            (Also, regarding South Korea — not Korea! — I wrote ‘roughly’, as in one-third more or so. Doesn’t break any comparisons, same ballpark for most demographic purposes.)

            No go educate yourself! ;-) (Hey, I’m trying to be polite, give me some credit.)

            Edit in reply to your edit: technically, England _is_ a country. Also, just because Scotland exists doesn’t mean that England’s geographic and demographic properties just disappear; my comparison was very favorable to England actually. Japan has good rail services to some of the remotest towns in the mountains, i.e. they do have very challenging terrain to work with.

    1. Yeah the British did invent queuing, most famously used in the evacuation of Dunkirk. But also used in leaving the United States, India ,Burma, Afghanistan,Singapore, South Africa,Belieze, Bermuda,Hong Kong. Losing an Empire is a great use for queuing.

  2. Ugh. I’ll be flying into Heathrow at the end of June, and I can only imagine how busy things will be, what with the Olympics and all…

  3. As long as people are willing to put up with these abuses don’t expect to see any changes in the near future. Au contraire, it will only get worse as private corporations get established as defenders of national security. The share holders must be fed.

  4. I’m trying to figure out why someone went to the trouble of blurring out that guy’s face.  

    1. Because of the photo’s framing and his proximity, the eye is drawn to him as the subject of the image. By obscuring his face, the natural tendency to focus on faces diminishes and emphasizes the queue which is the actual subject of the picture.

  5. At some point, someone is going to utter a sentence that ends with the phrase, “in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of The Leopard”.'”I just know it.

  6. “I’m not saying we should abandon checks, but it’s a choice for the government – you either look at the way you deal with people when they arrive at Heathrow, or you recruit more staff.”

    That’s the crux of it isn’t it, but how many extra staff can the facilities take before you need to expand various sections of the airport? Maybe they need to start looking at how to better handle security coming in.

    There’s only one airport I hate more than Heathrow, unfortunately its Tullamarine in Melbourne, and as I live here I can’t avoid it easily.

    1.  Oh get off it – Tullamarine isn’t a patch on Heathrow for awfulness. It’s no picnic, sure, but I flew Tulla -> Doha -> Heathrow recently, and Heathrow easily took the prize for queueing horror.

      1. I’m sure it all depends on the time of day. My last big international trip involved one landing and two departures from Heathrow (the other landing in London was at Gatwick). Each trip through the airport was no longer than an hour.
        Upon arriving back in Melbourne though was a two hours of getting passports checked and moving. ever. so. slowly. through. absurd. customs. procedures. It took over two hours to get out of there.

        My last flight in to Tulla wasn’t half as bad though. Maybe all that money they’ve been throwing at upgrading it has done some good.

        1.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not praising Tulla! It’s far from having won my heart.

    1. Better than the US experience – groped, questioned for 5 hours, refused entry for using twitter (getting tasered and/or tortured is optional).

      1. Happens in the UK too (maybe not Twitter specifically but you get the point). Or anywhere else for that matter. The US doesn’t have a monopoly on stupidity.

        (Never had a problem entering the US; on one trip to the UK — as an EU citizen, no less — a couple of pages of evil-looking Arab-language visas in my passport earned me a 2-hour delay and lots of drug-related questions. I’m as white as can be so no apparent racial profiling, I’ll give them that. Got a new passport the very same day I returned. You’d think the bad guys would figure this out too and get a clean passport before pursuing their eeevil activities, right? An exercise in futility if you ask me.)

    2. We have more than one airport.  If you’re coming from Europe there are loads of options, but if you’re coming from further afield you might find flights to London Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham or Glasgow.

      Also, does anyone know if this is all of Heathrow, or just certain terminals?  It’s so huge it’s almost three/five airports.

  7. You could always use Gatwick, no one is forcing you to use Heathrow, extra hour in a bus wont kill you.

    1.  > no one is forcing you to use Heathrow

      “Yes mr. pilot, I’ll have you know that Koko Szanel on yes I’m certain that’s his real name says you don’t have to land at Heathrow you can land at Gatwick nobody is forcing you to land at Heathrow. UGH here give it to me why do I have to do everything myself.”

    2.  I returned to the UK via Gatwick last month and experienced over an hour’s delay getting through passport control. It was just before midnight with plenty of tired upset kids crying and frayed tempers. There were no way near enough staff to process the queues. They did manage rush some extra staff a half hour in. I get the feeling that UKBA are trying to run boarder control on a shoe string. It smacks of cost cutting austerity measures. Something tells me that this problem is more extensive than Heathrow.

        1. Meanwhile, the bombs are still getting made and the boys are still getting their guns. No corners cut when it comes to killing, at least. They must think it painful enough already – well, for those on the wrong end of it, at least.

  8. > honestly – how are they managing to screw up this badly??
    By knocking down Terminal 2 and having to cram all those passengers into Terminals 1 & 3 while they rebuild it. From my experience of taking trans-european flights, Terminals 4 & 5 are pretty hassle free. There’s a lot of walking from Point A to Point B when you’re using Terminals 1 or 3. 

  9. Wow. A five hour wait? Last November I travelled to and from London City Airport and it took me 10 minutes from leaving the plane and boarding the DLR (EU citizen without baggage). I definitely recommend smaller airports. I didn’t see any long queues there. I wonder if you could travel from Heathrow to City, Gatwick or Stansted via plane just to avoid the waiting time.

    1. My personal record at City, from the handbrake going on, disembarking, passport control, bag checked in to the hold, customs, to being in a cab is 2 minutes 40. 

      1. And it’s just as good going the other way. Three years ago my taxi pulled up outside only 14 minutes before take-off, and I was sure that I’d missed it. I wandered in, asked if I could get the next flight, and was told “no problem, just go straight to the gate and board now”. Security was 4 minutes, walk to the gate another 4 minutes, walk to the ‘plane another 1 minutes.

        And before you ask, this wasn’t just because the flight was delayed (or if it was it was less than 5 mins), and I DID have check-in luggage.


        1. Yep, I’ve done similar. 

          However when it comes to leaving, my best is 1 hour before departure. If there are only two passengers, why wait. 

  10. Please refrain from handing out [the leaflets] or I will escalate [the matter] with ministers who are likely to take a very dim view. I know there are copies in the hall and your troops are ready with them.”


  11. Cory and all, no doubt you haven’t seen an entry to U.S. (for non-citizens/Green Card holders). On top of it all taking a picture would probably mean you would be placed on a flight back to your source destination. Immediately.

    1. That is something that I noticed when flying back to the US last February, how the Newark terminal had signs everywhere warning passengers not to take any pictures in the customs area. Which is a shame, really, as that particular hall was actually pretty interesting from an architectural standpoint, with lots of natural lighting and whatnot.

      Ye gods, the US and the UK have let the bedwetting scaredycats run things for far too long.

    2.  I’m neither a US citizen nor a green-card holder, and I fly to the USA 10+ times/year.

      1. Although flying in from Canada, if you’re in the habit of doing that, is a lot less harsh. US Customs  have their stations in every Canadian international airport and you can just walk off the plane when you arrive in the States as though you were on a domestic flight. Having flown from Mexico to Chicago O’Hare, it’s definitely more of a circus to be processed in an international terminal. A circus that can’t be recorded for reasons of “national security.”

    3. At least the US doesn’t have the iniquity of a fast stream through immigration for rich travellers that the UK now has. Only the plebs need queue (also a British tradition).

    4. The US has its faults but I’ve always experienced immigration officials as friendly and laid-back. Apart from a half-hour line in Texas, no bad experiences so far. Fingers crossed. ;-) Border patrol near the Mexican border on the other hand… pretty rough if they spot foreigners, doesn’t matter where they are from.

      (Not a US citizen or resident. But I’m white, that may or may not make a difference.)

          1.  No. Because I’m Mexican, and I’m aware of how important tourism is for the economy, and how hard the government has (unsuccessfully) tried to erase the image of a state ravaged by the violence wrought by organized crime; and to think they haven’t bothered to train the border patrol officers to be polite is upsetting :-/

  12. Nothing like a little power to bring all the little Hitlers to the surface. The director of UKBA needs to get a brain, and a life. he of course doesn’t have to go through this nonsense. He gets waved straight through to the plane. You sir, are a joke.

      1. This. The BNP-sympathizing, middle-Englander,  card-carrying Tory numpties screamed bloody murder last February because OMG THE DARKIES ARE GETTING IN! so Home Secretary Theresa May threw Clark to the wolves, happy to replace him with one of her cronies. 

        The current government is already under pressure because it’s completely unable to fulfil their outlandish manifesto promises (they wanted to cut immigration by some awful number which is completely unattainable as long as Britain stays in the EU, so they’re squeezing everyone else and still will never go anywhere near a level who’ll satisfy the racists), so they’re quite happy to effectively close the borders to the “unwashed”. Cameron’s millionaire friends all have their private jets and VIP privileges anyway, I bet none of them go through Heathrow these days.

  13. And this is why, when I leave the country for the summer to avoid the Olympics, I’ll be using Gatwick or London City instead. Heathrow is just horrible in every way.

  14. Aren’t we all happy we don’t live in a totalitarian communist country, where the government spies on us and you have to queue for everything, being watched by minions making sure no one raises their voice, while some selected few enjoy preferential treatment?

    1. “Aren’t we all happy we don’t live in a totalitarian communist country, where the government spies on us and you have to queue for everything, being watched by minions making sure no one raises their voice…”They had to do that. We have the freedom to. Now don’t you feel better?
      “…while some selected few enjoy preferential treatment?”
      Well, what’s the point of preferential treatment if everybody else doesn’t have it worse than you?

  15. I hate Heathrow. And to think that we pay massive extra fees just for that monstrosity of Terminal 5. Ugh. Then we wait in endless lines. What a waste!

  16. Could someone tell me if a similar situation exists for those trying LEAVE the UK via Heathrow? (The article refers to arrivals, but no comment is made of those leaving.)

  17. I’m a UK citizen and find the best way to travel to the US is via Dublin, plane from (host city airport) to Dublin, to US destination (Dublin has US customs, so US travellers can check straight in there), and the reverse to come home. 

  18. “Please refrain from handing out [the leaflets] or I will escalate [the matter] with ministers who are likely to take a very dim view. “

    What a fucking weasel. I think we all recognize a bully.

  19. Can anyone clarify if this is only for passengers whose final destination is London? We will be connecting through Heathrow in mid-July. I didn’t even think about the chaos the Olympics would cause when we booked our trip. :/

    1. Flight Connections are served by a different area in T5 often a much smaller queue. Because you don’t need a landing card if transferring its handled slightly differently and should be a quicker process. 

      There was still a queue this morning for flight connections but not nearly as long as the non-EU line for normal entry to the UK.

  20. At SFO the citizens and green-card holders use the same lines; the green-card holders have their fingerprints recorded, citizens do not. But the hardware to do so is right there, so I think it’s just a matter of time until someone decides that everyone entering the USA needs to be fingerprinted.

    I avoid Heathrow because of all the walking.

  21. So we used to have a Border Agency, and Customs Officers.
    Now we have a Border Force and ‘Troops’!


  22. Telling people how to complain can get the big bosses in trouble and they don’t like that.

    The single fastest congressional action I’ve ever seen in the U.S. was when the Internal Revenue Service office in southwest Houston put up a sign in early April (for non-U.S. citizens – annual tax returns are due mid-April and the lines at those offices get huge immediately prior) apologizing for the long waits.  At the time, it was the busiest and most efficient IRS walk-in office in existence, running extended hours and serving more people per window than any other office in the nation.  However, due to cuts in staffing, they never had enough people to keep all the service windows open full time.  If they had been able to do that, wait times would have been tolerable instead of the queue extending out into the parking lot.

    So the manager put up a sign apologizing for the wait and advising people in the waiting room that the reason for the long wait was that Congress had cut their staffing budget and, thus, they didn’t have enough people to handle the crowds.  The sign flatly stated that the manager of the unit could do nothing to speed things up and if faster service was desired the sign suggested people call their congresscritter.

    It took just minutes for at least three “Congressional Referrals” to be opened.  That’s when someone contacts Congress and a staffer takes the time to send an email over to Treasury and down the chain of command asking for an explanation of a situation.  Typically, processing a referral is done quickly after it takes some time getting down through the Treasury bureaucracy.  Receipt at the local level is then acknowledged within a day or so but corrective action takes as long as it takes which can be days or months.  But in this case, within an hour of posting that sign, Congressional staffers were on the phone to the field office, completely cutting out all normal procedure.  They were screaming and they were threatening.

    The sign was removed before lunch.

    God forbid the people actually working the problem should be allowed to properly advise the general public how to complain effectively.  That would lead to all kinds of chaos, wouldn’t it?

  23. You know, before EU vs. non-EU passports, I think we should have a line for families with children, eldery, or disabled, and a line for people travelling alone. It’s the most basic thing, but you’d speed things up immensely if you separated clusters from solitaires. Families are more likely to be carrying multiple types of passports, anyway, and the customs officials processing them need to watch out for different things. I honestly don’t know why this hasn’t at least been tried in high-volume areas like this.

  24. The queues appear to be building up because risk profiling has been abandoned completely in advance of the upcoming olympics in London.

  25. I don’t know anything about Airport operations but it seems to me, given that obtaining a list of incoming flights, passengers, and immigration status well before the flight is to arrive would allow the management in question to very efficiently staff for busy and slow times.
    Further, since they already have the passenger list, why not do your immigration rigamarole at the gate for each flight rather than having a hall?

  26. Took me 3.5 hours to get from the gate to the exit in itanbul a couple weeks ago. 

    Aslo, a friend of mine (US citizen) got denied entry into London (England) the other day. He had all his things there at a friend house. Jut flew for the weekend to a party in France, and they wouldnt let him return…. reason: unknown. 

    So in France they told him they will happily accept him back, and arranged a hotel for him till he figured out what to do.   

  27. Waited 2.5 hours last night (Sunday) in the T5 non EU border control line. Saw several passengers coming unhinged – line jumping almost storming the gate. There were only 2 Agents working the non EU border control. I can confirm there were no complaint forms at any station desks. I had a 8 PM arrival but due to rain didn’t land until 9PM. I did not get though customs until after midnight. At which time all the trains were closed, the buses were all gone, and all that was left were Taxi’s for myself and hundreds of other travelers.

    £160 and hours later I ended up back in Oxford.

    This is new – I had the same thing happen a few weeks back with a 3 hour wait. I have been traveling regularly in the UK for the past several years – never seen anything more than a 45 min wait in any Heathrow terminal.

    UK Border Agency – Austerity does NOT MEAN employing only 2 Agents when 10 are needed. This is incredibly DANGEROUS for your country – you are over working your front line security protecting your border. Get your shit together – this is LONDON not the 3rd world!!!!!!

    1. For future reference, there is a normal night bus from Heathrow to Central London, the N9.  It should cost about £2.30 if you don’t have an Oyster card. 

      The Oxford Tube long-distance bus runs from Victoria to Oxford all night, it’s every hour overnight. I have no idea how much it costs.  Both stop at Marble Arch.

      Your taxi would have been much, much faster than this though.

      I’ve only used Heathrow about 4 times (inbound), but I’ve never had to queue for more than about 15 minutes.

      1.  In fact, there’s a regular night bus that runs direct from Heathrow to Oxford, run by the Oxford Bus Company. It only runs once every two hours between midnight and 6am (every half an hour outside those times), but it would have been £140 cheaper than the taxi and would have taken the same amount of time.

  28. God forbid a passenger see’s a friend named Jack and yells “Hi” followed by his name. 

  29. Governments are always thinking Complaint offices are just for that: complaining –as opposed to SOLVING the fraking problem.

    The bureaucratic equivalent of the ‘Close’ button in an elevator: it doesn’t actually close the door, but pressing it repeatedly helps you ease the tension ;)

  30. Whats this the city that has more surveillance cameras than the law should allow, doesn’t want pictures taken of their overcrowded airport queues – WTF?

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