Lines at British customs ran long and slow, a result of budget strains in an age of cuts and austerity. Passengers on a nine-hour US flight disembarked Wednesday only to find a 90-minute-plus wait in lines manned at many points by only one customs officer.
Passengers from Africa, Asia, and America fidgeted and frowned with carry-ons and kids as one or two officers questioned passengers from Zambia and Hong Kong about whether their papers were in order. About 20 other entry posts sat empty.
A flat-screen TV in the arrival area described the protocol to declare asylum, though many passengers waiting in line hoped no one would.
When this reporter, after 80 minutes, questioned the excessive wait and the lack of adequate staff, British police resorted to arguments about the need for security, then criticized American airport customs procedures, before treating any question about staffing as an affront.
However, when customs officers discovered the question came from an American reporter, British officials did an about-face. Officers admitted the long and slow line was a result of budget cuts and a shortage of officials. One senior official had already phoned for more help processing passengers but was told to make do.
“Please say something, you will help us,” said a border policeman named Tommy. “We lost a dozen persons last week and I’ve heard we will lose a hundred more in the next two” – owing to austerity measures that are some of the deepest in British memory. “We are going to have long lines until this is dealt with.”
The line for non-British passport holders sped up after four customs officers shifted from a line serving British citizens. A customs official recommended that passengers wanting to avoid long waits sign up to new identification procedures that rely on photos of a person’s iris, which accords the person a separate and speedier line. At least until the next round of budget cuts.