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Tue, Jun 26, 2007

UK Airports Instituting Passport Scans

Processing Time Has Doubled, Leading To Fears For Summer Travel

Concern is being voiced by airlines and the flying public alike in the UK over the newly-created Border and Immigration Agency's new passport scanning system that has already caused "chaos" at Stansted Airport since its installation.

Amid warnings of massive delays during the summer travel season, the British government said it would not interrupt the installation of the biometric passport scanning devices in all the country's major airports, according to the Telegraph.

A biometric passport is a passport with a tiny computer chip embedded in the cover and is sometimes called an e-Passport. The chip contains the owner's picture and personal information that is printed in the passport itself.

The newspaper reported Monday the use of the sophisticated scanning machines has already caused passenger processing time to double on arriving passengers.

The devices have already been responsible for long delays at Stansted Airport where some passengers have had to wait more than an hour to be processed into the country. There have been reports of long delays at Luton as well.

It's already so bad, that on at least one occasion, law enforcement threatened immigration officials with prosecution on public order charges because of overcrowding, according to the Telegraph.

Before, security personnel simply swiped passports through a scanner which read a series of encoded letters and numbers. Now, the older passports are still swiped, but require additional input to verify identity.

"It used to take between three to four seconds to process a passenger," said John Tincey, the vice-chairman of the Immigration Service Union. "Now you are looking at eight to 10 seconds, so it has more than doubled.

Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, criticized the delays last week saying, "This country is in danger of being taken over by 'secureocrats' who seem intent on bringing airports to a grinding halt. These are the same people who came up with the ridiculous idea that stopping people traveling with toothpaste and eye make-up would make us safer last year."

The Chief Executive of the Border and Immigration Agency, Lin Homer, said installation of devices at all major ports would be completed by the end of the year.

Homer answered the rising protests of the airlines, already fielding enough passenger complaints, thank you, by insisting passengers would be facing only a "slightly longer wait."

"We have to look at individuals and I make no apology for that," she said.

A spokesman for the Airport Operators Association, a British airport trade association, said, "We have met the government and have made it clear we need more front line immigration staff."

Homer insisted there has been an increase in personnel processing inbound passengers and any delays were caused by a number of factors.

"There has been some bunching of flights that has meant there have been times when we have been dealing with significantly more people than normal," she said.

The biggest fear is the new system's impact on Heathrow Airport, which, according to one industry source, was already on the edge.

"Once you have a backlog anywhere at Heathrow - even on the spur road coming in, it all falls over," an industry source told the Telegraph.

"There is going to be chaos in the summer," Tincey said.

FMI: www.ind.homeoffice.gov.uk, www.aoa.org.uk

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