Sort out passports, UKBA, for the country’s sake

April 28, 2012

The news today is full of reports of 2-hour queues at Heathrow to get passports inspected.

I remember the halcyon days of international travel, back in the 1990s, when getting back into the UK after a trip abroad was a breeze. You stood in line for a few moments with a queue of maybe 10 or 12 people ahead of you. The passport official (now the UK Border Agency of course) took a cursory glance at your passport and you were in.

Back in the halcyon days of travel only getting into the United States was tricky and time consuming. Today getting back into the UK, my home country and the state that issued my passport, is a real pain.

For a while being registered for IRIS, the retina scanning identity system, allowed me to jump the queues. That was when it was working – about 50% of the time in my experience. But that’s now being phased out in favour of the new, chipped, electronic passports. There are more gates to process those than there were IRIS gates, but the bloody system just doesn’t work. I’ve had one of these new passports for a couple of months, and have tried using the electronic scanning on seven or eight occasions now. It’s worked once. To let me into Portugal. It’s never worked to get me into the UK, and last week it didn’t work to get me into Portugal either.

When returning from a recent trip to the USA via Heathrow T3, after having queued for some time I realised that there is still an IRIS gate – and no queue – and it worked, so I jumped the queue.

But before this realisation, while standing in line with everyone else, I observed that there were three UK BA staff fully occupied at the electronic scanning gates. One to explain to people how to use the system, and two to manually scan the passports when the electronic gates failed. Which they did repeatedly. My estimate, from about 10 minutes watching, is that only 1 in 4 scans actually worked.

And the time taken for each of the failed scans is significant. It would be much quicker to skip the electronic gate altogether and just present the passport to one of the inspectors.

In fact they should go one step further. Close the electronic gates entirely, they’re a complete waste of time and space, and move the staff to manually inspecting passports at three of the other desks – the UKBA would process people a lot faster that way.

How the hell is this going to work for the Olympics? And what impression is a 2 hour wait at immigration going to make on first time visitors to the UK?

I remember my first ever visit to the USA, to San Francisco. I got the distinct impression that the border staff would rather I just got back on the ‘plane and went home. Is that the kind of welcome we want to present the world?

Sort it out, UKBA, for the country, and the economy’s sake.

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