British newspapers are atwitter regarding three-hour immigration lines at London’s airports, especially Heathrow. All of the focus is on changing the behaviour of a government agency and its unionized workforce so that the lines are shorter. Why not instead assume that the agency and the unions won’t change and redesign the experience?Despite the 19 years and $6.4 billion spent on Terminal 5, for example, they don’t seem to have planned for the possibility of the immigration process turning into an India-style all-day line. Disney and other theme parks have already worked this out, though. So why not take the best ideas from that world? The first thing that could be done is to space passengers out, instead of dumping everyone from every transatlantic flight into the line during a short morning time block. Encourage passengers to linger a while rather than rush to get in line.
How to do this? A lot of passengers will be hungry. I was on an “economy plus” British Airways ticket. This sells for up to $5000 round-trip. The breakfast served on the flight is a single cold muffin, served by flight attendants who communicate very clearly that they’d rather be doing almost anything else other than working. Unlike a $69 JetBlue flight, there are no snacks available to passengers who get hungry. So why not have some nice breakfast restaurants prior to the immigration lines? A place to take a shower or sleep for a few hours? An Internet cafe? (due to the lack of power outlets or free WiFi in the terminal, should be popular)
The line itself could also be redesigned. People come to London to see Shakespeare, Madame Tussauds wax museum, etc. Why not bring these attractions to the line? There are plenty of unemployed actors in England who would be happy to perform Shakespeare scenes in front of the audience of hundreds that are assembled. London musicals could send singers over to perform the most popular parts of musicals to which they hope to sell tickets. At every turn in the line there could be a Madame Tussaud wax figure with accompanying information.
This seems like a better idea than hoping for a government bureaucracy to improve dramatically.
[Could the process be speeded up if the government bureaucracy were motivated? It would appear so. During my time in the line, I observed that at least 30 per cent of the agents at Heathrow were idle. There are separate queues for UK/EU passport holders, business class travellers, travellers who’ve signed up to a special biometric screening process, etc. Instead of all of these queues feeding into a large group of agents, each queue is served by its own small group of agents. So when the business class queue runs dry, the agents responsible that queue sit idly staring into space, their eyes occasionally meeting jetlagged passengers standing in the three-hour “non-UK/EU” line. Probably the waiting time could be reduced by 30-50 per cent simply by having all the agents able to take customers from any queue as necessary.
If 30 per cent of the Heathrow agents were idle, probably 80 per cent of the border control agents around the U.K. were sitting idle at the same time that we were waiting in line at Heathrow. They might have been waiting, for example, for the next flight to land in Manchester. Given such a large pool of workers who are being paid not to work, a company that cared about customers and productivity would probably set up a video link system so that some passengers could be screened by putting passports into a scanner and having a videoconference with an agent at an airport that didn’t happen to be busy. This would surely bring the waiting times down to just a few minutes, without the border control people having to change the number of employees or the amount of time spent talking to the average arriving person.
Separately, of course the border control people are wasting a huge amount of time hassling low-risk passengers. I’m a middle-aged middle-income American passport holder who makes periodic short business trips to England. Long ago they should figured out that my passport (almost 10 years old) is one that they’ve seen at intervals and for short trips. Given the parlous state of the British economy, the idea that I would want to stay there and work illegally is absurd. Given my age, the idea that I would represent more of a terrorist threat than the UK’s own homegrown terrorists (who tend to be angry young men) is absurd. But if they want to have 3-minute conversations with every guy like me, they could do it without the lines simply by bringing in otherwise idle agents via videoconference.]
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