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Three hour queues at Heathrow – and that's before the Olympics!

By John Walton     Filed under: British Airways, london, Heathrow, UK, immigration, customs & immigration, fast track immigration, UK Border Agency

London's Heathrow Airport's immigration queues caused yet more travel nightmares this week, with non-European passengers waiting for over three hours.

So bring a book or make sure your electronic devices have enough charge to get you through the long wait.

UK Immigration boss Brian Moore told the BBC "the vast majority of passengers pass through immigration control quickly" -- a claim that'll be greeted with howls of laughter from anyone who's been stuck in Heathrow's queues for hours on end.

The reason for the chaos appears to be chronic understaffing and a rainy evening at Heathrow, which led to a few flight delays. Rain is not, needless to say, an especially unusual occurrence in London.

Business travellers will be looking with some suspicion at immigration chief Moore's insistence that the UK Borders people are "fully prepared to manage busy periods", particularly during the 2012 Olympics.

If you're heading to London this UK summer, don't miss our roundup of the days Heathrow is likely to be worst affected by overcrowding -- and what you can do about it.

Heathrow's worst immigration delays last week were at Terminal 5, home to most of Qantas partner British Airways' flights.

That's the newest, most advanced terminal in the otherwise dilapidated Heathrow. You'll fly through T5 if connecting to Red Roo, BA or oneworld partner flights, many of which leave from the older Terminal 3.

Terminal 5 is supposed to be the terminal least affected by queues at immigration, according to planning by the airport operator BAA.

Avoiding the queue? Your other options

If you're heading to the UK, smaller airports may offer less of a queue. While Qantas and its partner British Airways only serve Heathrow for flights from Australia, many European airlines have decent connections via their hubs to other UK cities.

So if you've still got time to change your plans, consider KLM via Amsterdam, Lufthansa via Munich or Frankfurt, Finnair via Helsinki, Brussels Airlines via Brussels, SAS' Scandinavian hubs or even Air France via Paris (usually an airport we avoid).

Some Asian and Middle East airlines also fly directly from their own hubs to UK regional airports. Emirates has flights to several UK cities, for example.

If you're bound via London for other European destinations, consider rerouting to avoid Heathrow. While most Qantas flights head for LHR, the Red Roo also has Singapore-Frankfurt flights.

Contact your airline -- even if your ticket carries change penalties -- and see whether there's extra flexibility in the circumstances.

And if you must head through Heathrow, check out the AusBT guide to London Heathrow for maps, guides, frequent flyer tips and business traveller tricks to navigating one of the world's most frustrating airports. 

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About John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

 

Have something to say? Post a comment now!

1 on 1/5/12 by jetsetter86

How long do the fast track lines look? Do you have any information on setting up access via finger print scan or iris scan like say DXB or HKG?

2 on 2/5/12 by rcooper

You need to put some of this press into perspective, partially it is being driven by the media to ensure the airport copes during the Olympics.  The prime concern with Heathrow and immigration is whether it is being staffed properly, and the fact the airport is seeing significant growth in traffic numbers over the past 6 months - bringing it closer and closer to 70 millions passengers per year, of which 95% have to pass through immigration

There are some inaccuracies in this article that are not putting things in perspective.  Fact is it does not take most people 3 hours to clear immigration, apparently it happened last week but it is not the norm.  I did it two weeks ago in a peak period - not even 15 minutes, fast track, and the scanning systems even quicker most of the time

Normal clearing time for long haul flights at peak periods I would put more at 20 - 40 minutes.  Dont forget UK and Eu passport holders are processed through different channels.

Ever arrived at Sydney in the peak period and cleared immigration in under 20 minutes? And then there is LAX/MIA/JFK and DXB.  Sydney only takes only takes small number of jets compared to what Heathrow takes in its single rush period and it doesnt cope with that or flow passengers properly

Between 0430 - 0700am Heathrow takes in excess of 70 long haul flights - more long haul flights than Sydney and Melbourne take in a day, and that is before the next rush starts and continues throughout the day

The airport is at capacity and that is another whole debate.  Is it dilipated - its had a huge amount of money invested in it in the past few years, and some major logistical changes in terms of grouping airlines into various terminals so it is much better than it was

Terminal 5 is impressive, and very popular with business travellers - the reason it isnt coping with immigration is due to the fact it takes a majority of BA flights both European and long haul - so it has congestion issues at times.

Terminal One has had a revamp and very functional, Terminal Four also a major revamp and some great initiatives have been put in place like the Qatar Airways Premium Lounge

Terminal Three although completely revamped still shows its age and overcrowding at times.  The new replacement terminal for Terminal Two which will be the Star Alliance Terminal will be very large and spacious

Also remember in major hub airports like LHR, JFK, ORD, CDG, AMS,FRA etc - when there is a major weather incident like there was at LHR last week - and it wasnt a bit of rain as suggested, the knock on effect and overcrowding impact happens very quickly and takes time to clear

Do I recommend connecting at LHR when travelling to Europe, no absolutely not - but that is not new, and more to the point with networks in Europe that airlines like SQ EK EY CX LH KL AF now offer why would you?  Only those obsessed by their QF frequent flyer points and paying a premium to fly on QF and having to connect at LHR will continue to do so - QF and BA know that - so they are not worried

LGW is definitely a great option for flying into London - again getting a major overhaul without the congestion of Heathrow and you can be in central London in 30 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 on 3/5/12 by John

Thanks for the sizeable comment, rcooper -- needless to say, there's a fair bit of it that I don't entirely agree with, but I know we agree about connecting via LHR to Europe! 

On the Gatwick point, keep your eyes open -- I had a very interesting experience there recently and will be sharing it later today!

3 on 2/5/12 by alaskaqantas

As a kiwi living in London I don't enjoy using Heathrow much anymore. For being the most expensive airport to fly from in the world it has some of the worst waiting times. But to be honest during peak times other airports in London are bad as well. I’ve waited for 3.5 hours at Stanstead once trying to get into the country.

I understand what rcooper is saying, but for the price that we pay to fly in and out of Heathrow... it should be a breeze, no matter whether its rush time or not.

And they aren’t helping themselves they had a program similar to the US Global Entry, except FREE, which is even better. But they aren’t taking any new applicants. It was great system because although I don’t have a British passport because I have a long term visa, or could prove that I travel to the UK a lot they would issue it to me… I think they need to bring this back, but offer more places to sign up then just a few terminals at heathrow past security… BAA / Immigration chief… bad call not avoiding this. Let just hope they can figure out how to deal with it before the summer.

1 on 3/5/12 by John

I too will seriously miss the IRIS program when it disappears.

Last time I flew into Heathrow (on the second-to-last Qantas flight from Hong Kong) we got stuck behind an A380-full of Emirates passengers, with all the extra suspicion that a planeload of people arriving from the Middle East engenders from the fine folk at border control.

Ten seconds in the IRIS booth (I am about a foot too tall for the machines) and I was through. There's no decent reason why IRIS and RFID-enabled passports can't use similar systems for frequent traveller fast-track entry.

4 on 4/5/12 by frederickoz

l arrived at 2230 on Fri 20 Apr, and timed the wait from back of immigration queue to front - 59 mins 54 sec. As I waited, the lines grew to the point where the corridors back to the gates filled. I agree with this article, but would add, arrive before 2100 (the officer explained that on night shift they only have six officers 'on' at T5).

Also, do not rely on an EU passport to get you through quicker - that line looked painstakingly slow too.

And, the fast track line only operates before 1400.

Look, its going to be painful, not just because of the Games, but probably also because the UK economy is not going great guns, so they probably have unpublished overtime bans and morale is low, all at a time when security has to be raised. A lose-lose for the traveller, but if you can land in Paris and train across (or use a different UK airport), your border experience will probably be much better.

 

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