Why use the word but?

Heathrow sees the busiest ever day in the airport’s history – but passenger queues get longer

27 thoughts on “Why use the word but?”

  1. Passport Control at airports is always a fascinating example of the virtues of state planning. The number of aircraft arriving in any particular period is known months if not years in advance. The number of passengers can be estimated days if not weeks ahead. Even the composition of the passengers & thus what gates they’ll be passing through is information available before the aircraft wheels touch the ground. And still they can’t get supply to even come near matching demand.
    Of course, they’re in no way a service, are they? Passport Control is run primarily for the benefit of Passport Control. The queues are a feature not a bug. They facilitate economical demand smoothing & the cost is borne entirely by the passenger.

  2. “Targets are for an up-to-25-minute wait for British and EU passengers, and up to 45 minutes for non-Europeans.”

    That’s the target?! Bloody outrageous. People are coming here with money to spend and/or business to conduct, and we tell them to stand and shuffle in a draughty corridor for 45 minutes, on top of the eight hours they’ve already spent in a flying sardine can. I can’t fathom why we don’t get more foreign investment.

  3. Passenger queues get longer but Heathrow still sees the busiest ever day in the airport’s history

    Fixed it.

  4. @ bis
    Who wants to work on passport control? So it’s understaffed.
    Hence Tim’s constant cry of “pay market rates even if it’s £1/hour or £100/hour”

  5. @bis
    @Andrew M


    Yep, passengers arriving per minute is known well in advance, no excuse for long queues.

    Target should be max 15 minutes

  6. I’ve some experience in this, having actually processed passports (albeit only overflow, as a Customs officer) and consorted with those that plan the booths. Not in the UK, but the issues are similar.

    Two problems.

    1) planes don’t land on time. You can see the schedule, but that’s not what actually arrives. When they disembark is different again, since arrival and disembarkation are different.

    2) peaks and troughs. You can clear everyone with 15 minutes, easy. But you’d need twice the staff to cover the peaks. Who would then sit around on their chuff for most of the time.

    You might only want them for an hour or two, but no-one will take the job for that (they’d spend more time getting to work than actually working). So you either do it cheaply, and have queues, or you have excess staff. I’m guessing no-one here is for paying for people to do nothing.

    Supermarkets have exactly the same problem. You can always have enough staff on, and the goods are more expensive, or you can have queues. Guess what? You almost always have to queue.

    As ever, it seems so simple when you have no practical experience of the problem.

    If it were easy, someone somewhere would have solved it. Yet every airport I have ever been to, even those countries with cheap staff, has queues. Often horrendous ones.

  7. The queues weren’t this bad prior to enhanced security due to RoP terrorism.

    And it’s not as if the government is competent in its most basic task, that of securing our borders.

  8. Chester: supermarkets solve the peak/trough problem with self-service checkouts. Surely passport control could do the same thing?

  9. Bloke in North Dorset

    Chester is almost right with the supermarket analogy, but it isn’t as simple as having more staff for short term peaks and troughs.

    Supermarkets know what the hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and annual (Christmas) peaks look like when they are designing and building their stores. If they were to put in enough tills to deal with the Christmas peak and had enough staff to man them through multi-skilling, which they are good at, they would have a large chunk of real estate and capital sat
    doing nothing for 99% of the time. Whoever designed that system wouldn’t last long.

    Instead they work out what they want their longest queues to be at one of the peaks, say weekly, and how long they want people to wait. At its most basic Erlang C tables will tell them how many tills they need.

    The same goes for passport control. Airport management are well aware of the busiest times of the year, Christmas and summer holidays, but they really can’t design a system that will process those passengers in, say 15 minutes, even if they have the staff available. Think of the number of gates that will be unused most of the year and how much real estate space will be needed? Yes, I’m aware of the real estate needed for queuing, that’s just a complication to Elrang C.

    And if they get the processing of passport control down to, say, 15 minutes at the annual peak times, the next bottleneck is baggage collection. Those carousels can only go so fast so how many more of them will be needed at at what cost in real estate and capital equipment?

    If that investment was to be made what would it do to landing fees and hence ticket costs? That trade off will be a reduced number of passengers.

    I’ve had similar problems doing mobile network designs, especially for license bids in the early days of GSM. The marketing types would demand the very best and that there wouldn’t be any delays during peak periods. We’d advise that this would be prohibitively expensive but they would insist they wanted the best. When we came back a week later with the first cost estimates their would be hell on and the grown-ups (CFO and CEO) would throw them out and then we’d start looking at the trade offs.

  10. Bloke in North Dorset

    PS Its also the DMs fault that passport control is is slow.

    When I first started doing a lot of travelling for work in ’94 we just waved our passports at the desk and were let through. The occasional one would be checked but even with those the whole thing took about 1 second. It was effectively a walk through check.

    The DM and other righty papers started playing up about immigration and the result was that by the time I quit consulting in ’05 every single person had to stand in front of a desk and hand over their passport. The officer would then look at it closely and run it through a machine. The whole thing would take at least 10 seconds per person

    I don’t remember the DM every saying that they would be happy for taxes to be increased to enforce those extra checks.

  11. I’ve been through Terminal 3 Heathrow twice in the last week. Max wait under ten minutes. Through security and passport control in under twenty. I spent longer at check in.

  12. I’ve worked the till at a supermarket check out. A very looong time ago. Back when I had to type in the price by hand, none of this beep, beep, flashy stuff.

    There is no excuse for an unmanned till. Take staff from the shop floor to operate the till during busy times, then send ’em back to stacking shelves when it’s quiet.

    The main problem with long check out queues was the customer. I could (and still can) type the price into the till faster than a customer can pack. And the default response to any check-out staff offering to help with the packing was “No”. Customers generally would assume that we must be too stupid to know how to pack properly.

    Then I’d have to sit there waiting while the customer faffs about getting their money/cheque book out. Hello? Said customer has just spent 10 effing minutes bitching about the delay, couldn’t you use that time to find your sodding cheque book/purse/wallet/etc?!

    Working the express checkout was fun. Whilst waiting, customers would bitch I was too slow. Then when it came to their turn, bitch I was too fast.

  13. Over the last few years technology has transformed the arrival experience in almost every Asian airport I travel to, mainlyinvolving e-passports combined with facial and fingerprint recognition. The UK has adopted e-gates, but not enough, they don’t work well enough and by avoiding fingerprints they are both less secure and slower.
    In Sydney which also has no fingerprints, they have machines on the way from the plane to the customs hall that scan your passport, take a photo and issue a barcode ticket, in effect an e-ticket gate except not actually at the gate itself, allowing lots of machines. It also means that if you get a machine that doesn’t work it doesn’t cause a backlog. When you get to the border gate, you insert your ticket, a facial recognition camera checks it’s the same person and you are through. Since they brought that in a couple of years ago my waiting time dropped from maybe half an hour to 3 minutes. Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan all take a few minutes.
    There is a particularly stupid thing at Heathrow when the first planes land at 5.30 (sorry London) that huge queues develop because they don’t turn the electric gates on until (i think) 7am, because there aren’t any staff to ‘help’. How about letting people have a go at scanning their passports (standing in the right place is the major issue with the UK systems, but seemingly not anywhere else) and getting through unaided?

  14. @Mark T, you are seriously confused and most of your post is wrong.

    Australian arrival SmartGate compares you to a scan of your passport photo, or the database photo for Australian passports, not a live photo (what would be the point of comparing a photo of someone to another photo taken 1 minute earlier??). The “step 1” machines where you insert your passport and obtain a gate ticket only exist because they forgot to build a passport reader into the “step 2” machines, so they had to place the passport reader separately and just deploy a ticket reader. The ticket is completely unnecessary (as seen by how it works in Europe). There are plenty of queues at the Step 1 machines at SYD, because they staggered them two at a time along the long arrivals corridor, you know, after the duty free area, and everyone lines up at the first ones.

    Smartgate has existed for 10 years, not “a couple of years”. Departure smartgate is newer, but completely different and is based on the European style of machine which scans your passport, but requires a human to compare the scanned photo to the live image of you.

    Hong Kong is quick because they don’t really care who enters unless you present a Filipino, Russian or African passport. The introduction of fingerprinting in Singapore made the entry process slower, as it did in Taiwan – but the advantage in Taiwan is that you can now exit with fingerprint only, you don’t even need to get your passport out.

    The European/UK machines cannot let people through unaided because there is no software to compare your live image to your passport photo. It must be done by a human officer. In the UK one officer processes 5 e-gates at a time. As for why the gates are not in use at 0530, it’s simply that they don’t want to pay extra staff to work.

  15. The worst queues in the morning are at checkin, where your airline intentionally or by neglect lets the queue build up. Doesn’t matter at 5.30 but by 8.00 the queue is ridiculous when you have a boarding pass and are only waiting to bag drop and some dodgy foreign family comes up in front of you with no passes, some members not present, two tons of baggage and..it only takes one of those to mess the whole thing up and stupid BA don’t have any method of taking the problem people aside to free the desk and..can you tell this has happened to me?

  16. All you complainers should all fly to Tel Aviv, just to experience the entry and exit process there (including queues). It’s amazing. Like nowhere else on earth.

  17. The worst queues in the morning are at checkin, where your airline intentionally or by neglect lets the queue build up. Doesn’t matter at 5.30 but by 8.00 the queue is ridiculous when you have a boarding pass and are only waiting to bag drop and some dodgy foreign family comes up in front of you with no passes, some members not present, two tons of baggage and..

    I was very impressed by the automated bag drop system in Auckland recently. Put your bags on the scales on one of the (many) terminals, scan your boarding pass and a baggage tag is printed. Then just dump the bag on a conveyor.

    Given that the boarding pass can be printed at home before setting off for the airport it saved loads of time.

  18. BiND; not sure about the hard-on for Erlang, but there you go.

    Chester’s supermarket analogy is handy enough, but will fail for a fundamental reason, as there’s a conflict between the goals of travellers and border control that doesn’t (I assume – seems difficult to tell sometimes) exist in Sainsbury’s.

    By definition, all travellers arriving want to pass through border control. Border control don’t necessarily want all travellers passing through. Increasing numbers of travellers exacerbates the conflict. From the point of view of all travellers, the obvious solution is to scrap border control entirely, et viola, no queues.

  19. John, I didn’t know that UK e-gates were not really automated, but sent images to a person “behind a curtain”. Reminds me of the story of the Victorian (?) chess automaton which had a man hidden inside.

  20. @Chester Draws, August 11, 2018 at 7:52 pm

    Supermarket staff are only paid when working. When on-call they sit in staff room with (in Tesco) free fruit & drink; some free food; tv, games, microwave etc

    Passport & customs staff should be same.

  21. John, I don’t see why I am confused or why most of my post is wrong. Certainly I was unaware of the fact that there is actually a human looking at the photos at Heathrow as you suggest, although that strikes me as rather odd since all the references I can find from Border force refer to facial recognition software comparing you to the biometric information in the e-passport. If, as you suggest, they don’t actually have any facial recognition software then that is indeed a big story and I would count myself as enlightened rather than previously confused.

    Second, of course I realise why they don’t have too many staff working at 5.30am, but even if your Potemkin village of e-gates is true, surely one person can process so many more people if they sit behind the curtain? As far as I can see however, they only refer to staff being there to show you how it works and to resolve any problems, (ie tell you to go to the manual gate) which was my point about why not allow anyone who thinks they don’t need assistance the opportunity to go through ‘un-assisted’?

    As to Aus, well thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia I can see that yes they did indeed start at Brisbane airport in 2004, but only for Qantas frequent flyers. International travellers only got them in Sydney in 2015/6, which I would count as being within a broad definition of a couple of years ago. I am sure that there is indeed bunching around some of the machines, but it does not invalidate my point that having multiple machines spread out along the arrivals route is better than a bottleneck at the border itself, particularly if one of the gates is playing up. I had assumed that they took a photo of you at the time at step 1 gate so that the same person went through the step 2 gate, but you say not and I am again enlightened rather than previously confused. My point, indeed my only real point, was that it is massively quicker for me to get through Sydney or Melbourne airports than it was 2/3 years ago before they brought in these machines, but it is not quicker to get through Heathrow because of the stupid way they have designed the system.

    As to the rest of Asia, well I only go off my own experience, which is that here too biometric passports, e-readers, fingerprints etc have speeded up the immigration process enormously – again compared to border force in the UK.

  22. I was very impressed by the automated bag drop system in Auckland recently. Put your bags on the scales on one of the (many) terminals, scan your boarding pass and a baggage tag is printed. Then just dump the bag on a conveyor.

    They had this at Luton, last time I was there (just before Xmas).

  23. Just a thought, but since air travel’s been expanding for the last century or so, “Heathrow sees the busiest ever day in the airport’s history” must be quite a regular occurrence..

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