A Fast Track to the UK for Business Travellers?

October 5, 2012

It is all too common knowledge that over the past year waiting times for non-European passengers at Border Control in the UK’s airports have been on the rise.  In May the American movie star, Joan Collins, famously tweeted her disapproval of the lengthy queues; ‘arrived LHR…1000s waiting at passport control – listen up Ms. May – need more officers!’    

We were glad to see that extra staff and resources were brought in to assist at the largest airport in the UK, London Heathrow, during the 2012 Olympics, and these measures did ensure that travel in and out of the UK during the Games went remarkably smoothly.

But what can we expect now the Games are over, the approximately 500 additional staff who provided extra support at Heathrow have returned to their usual posts, and in the face of Government cuts, the UK Border Agency and the Border Force have dismissed hundreds of staff over the last year?  We can’t help but speculate that the delays may well increase.  It was with interest, therefore, that we read about the UKBA’s new scheme for priority passport lanes for business travellers at Heathrow and other British airports.

The Facts

In May this year the airports operator BAA released official figures which showed that one in four of all non-European passengers who arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 in April had to wait longer than the target time of 45 minutes to get through passport control.  The data revealed that at times the delays were so severe that passengers had to wait three hours to proceed through passport control.

In response, the Border Force announced that an extra 80 staff would be introduced for peak times at Heathrow, and ‘management and rostering changes will address the issue of queues.’  However, it acknowledged that the provision of extra staff was only a short term solution to the issue.

The UK: A welcoming place for business professionals?

Of course, delays when travelling are universal and often unavoidable.  It is frustrating being caught in a long queue, especially if you are part of a family with small children.  But you might think that a couple of hours wait isn’t the end of the world, and other than putting the traveller in a bad mood, or in more serious cases creating problems with connections or transfers, it does not cause significant detriment to the UK on a larger scale.

However, when three hour delays are experienced by non-EU business travellers who come to the UK to set up or close deals which could potentially boost our economy…this might well cause such business persons to be reluctant to travel here where it can be avoided.  It does no favours for the global reputation of the UK as a place that is open for business and undermines our Government’s attempts to encourage investors and entrepreneurs to journey here and invest in the UK.

The Home Office is eager to rectify this situation and there have been several proposals over the last month which are aimed at making passage through British airports a streamlined and fast process for business travellers.

This summer, it was announced that a scheme is being formulated which would enable those who can afford it to bypass immigration queues for a £1,800 fee.  The service would also include collection from the aircraft in a limousine and transfer to a VIP suite where travellers can drink champagne and wait for their luggage whilst their passports are checked.

However, more recently the UKBA announced another set of plans for fast-track passport lanes at Heathrow and other UK airports which is rather more divisive in nature…

A divisive solution?

According to the Guardian, the departing head of the UKBA, Brian Moore, told MPs at a Commons Home Affairs Committee meeting that passengers who are considered ‘high-value’ or ‘valuable to the British economy’ would be given priority treatment at immigration control.

The scheme is an extension of a priority queuing system piloted at Heathrow this year, under which passengers from Australia, Canada, the US, New Zealand and other countries who do not require a visa to enter the UK would be fast-tracked.

These plans are designed to ease congestion and signal that the UK is indeed ‘open for business.’  We welcome all attempts to make travel easier and more stress free for all passengers, and believe it is important to encourage business people to come to the UK.

This being said, the new scheme clearly has the potential to raise questions of unfairness, and if long queues do build up again, may well aggravate those who are forced to wait several hours whilst others are quickly rushed through.

We also wonder what criteria would be used to determine who can use the fast-track lanes.  Clearly financial means will play a large role, but it doesn’t seem that an individual’s salary or personal wealth will be the only factors considered when assessing eligibility.  What criteria will be used to decide whether someone who isn’t necessary earning a high salary, is of value to the British economy?  We look forward to finding out…

Have you been affected by delays at Heathrow or any other airport?  What do you think about the new scheme?  Is it a good idea or do you think it is unfair? 

As usual, please do leave your comments or questions below…

You can find more information on business visitor visas for non-EEA nationals here, or contact us with any queries.