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UK eyes airport lines ahead of Olympic Games

Luke MacGregor /REUTERS

Airport officials in Britain have raised concerns about passengers having long waits at immigration, fearing disruptions for the influx of visitors to the Olympics Games this year.

LONDON - An airport operator and lawmakers Saturday called on the government to urgently address chaos at Britain’s borders to prevent disruption for Olympic visitors.

Concerns have been raised amid lengthy waits for passengers arriving at immigration desks from flights into the British capital, including complaints from passengers who faced long lines Friday at Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

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BAA Ltd., which operates Heathrow and Stansted airports in London, said Britain’s border agency was not providing enough staff to conduct the necessary passport and visa checks, causing the delays, and it demanded that Britain’s interior ministry, the Home Office, take action.

“Immigration waiting times during peak periods at Heathrow recently have been unacceptable, and we have called on the Home Office to address the problem as a matter of urgency,’’ BAA said in a statement. “There isn’t a trade-off between strong border security and a good passenger experience - the Home Office should be delivering both.’’

Heathrow typically handles an average of 190,000 passengers arriving and departing each day, with 69.4 million total in 2011.

In the past, legislators have discussed their concerns about whether Heathrow and other London airports will be prepared to cope with large numbers of arrivals during the Olympics. The games run from July 27 to Aug. 12.

Those worries have been fueled by disruptions last summer, when Britain’s border chief relaxed some passport checks during the busy tourist season simply to handle the demand.

“There is a real problem, and the problem has emerged over the last few months,’’ said Keith Vaz, a lawmaker and chairman of Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee. “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.’’

“This is not just about the Olympics, this is about what happens before and after, it’s about Heathrow as a world-class airport, and it’s about our reputation, and we need to make sure we get it sorted,’’ Vaz said.

The Home Affairs Select Committee plan to question Damian Green, Britain’s immigration minister, on the issue next month.

Brian Moore, head of the United Kingdom Border Force - which is responsible for immigration checks - insisted his agency would continue to deploy staff in the same way.

“The vast majority of passengers pass through immigration control quickly,’’ Moore said. “Queues are caused by a number of factors, including incorrect flight manifests or early or late planes which result in bunching.’’

He also said his staff were “fully prepared to manage busy periods during the Olympics and will be implementing our well-rehearsed plans.’’

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