Living in a queue:
I have known
I have never timed how long it has taken me to get from the end of an immigration queue to a desk where a human being checks up on me, but some instances have stood out as particularly irksome. Moscow's Domodedovo airport in 2008 was one such. Having stood in a queue for what seemed like ages, I looked on in disbelief as the functionary at the desk ahead of me stood up, closed his booth and left, never to be seen again (while I was there). We had to redistribute ourselves from our queue into the others.
I have read recently that Hong Kong affords a pleasing experience. Not when I was there in 2010, it didn't. And there was the unnerving sight of large numbers of natives wearing white masks over their mouth and nose.
The USA used to specialise in long queues at immigration. My first experience was an unhappy one. But as we stood there interminably and I moaned, my husband said: 'And how long do you think non-British nationals have to wait at our airports?' He had a point, even 30 years ago. American immigration procedures have improved greatly over the years. I think, and hope, that the days are past when a surly apparatchik would say: 'Why have you come here?' in resentful tones. On one occasion, I had to admit to the assembled company of disgruntled people waiting behind me that the conference I had come to attend was called 'The Meaning of Gender in German History' (I was told to 'speak up'). The apparatchik clearly found this so incredible that he had me rummage in my bag for the programme, which he then affected to study closely.
More recent experiences in the US have been better, if anything can be better at the ghastly Miami airport. But the process has been speedier. However, that is not all one has to contend with at American airports. Once one is through immigration and feeling more relaxed, one is confronted with another queue, this time for the department of agriculture. No, I am not carrying any seeds or plant materials. What would I want to do that for when I am attending a conference? The last bit, of course, one does not say for fear of being delayed a good deal longer as a reprisal.
It remains, however, difficult to be confident that one will have an easy passage through an American airport. This has made direct flights from Scotland to the US less of a blessing than they seemed at first. If one is going to New York, the flight from Edinburgh to Newark is a godsend, eliminating the need to go to London Heathrow. But I have felt reluctant to go via Newark to places west of it. Perhaps I am being unduly cautious, but I tend to think that it is safest if my first landfall in the US is at my final destination. Then, a hold up at immigration may be irksome but is not disastrous. So I continue to go via Heathrow.
This is, I think, relevant to the current furore about waiting times at immigration at Heathrow. Damian Green speaks of a one and a half hour wait as if that is tolerable. It is not, under any circumstances. There has been talk of people waiting for two, even three, hours. If you need to rush off to the loo, can you reclaim your place or do you have to start at the back again? This may not be relevant to families but could be a problem for the solo traveller. I cannot see how anyone, either at the airport or in the Home Office, can be complacent about this state of affairs.
I can't imagine that any provision is made for people who arrive at Heathrow and have a connecting flight to elsewhere in the UK. This is something that is likely to affect Scots and visitors to Scotland particularly.
There is a suggestion that, when the Border Agency is displeased with politicians, it ensures that the greatest discomfort is felt at the sharp end – at airports. Queues there are, rightly, deemed to be what will exercise the travelling population most. That will lead to pressure on politicians. But whether the shambles that currently prevails is really part of a cunning plan is surely questionable.
Not that I would want to speak up for the Border Agency. It could, after all, redeploy to airports some of the person-power that it uses for checking up on people like me. It is at the behest of the Border Agency – although enforced particularly officiously by the University of Edinburgh (and not so officiously by some universities, and not at all by still others) that I have to fill in a form and present my passport every time I receive a fee from the University of Edinburgh (where I was a permanent member of staff for 39 years).
This has meant jumping through this hoop three times this year (having done so in the last two years also). This year, I also had to provide a copy of the outside cover of my passport, which seemed a particularly useless exercise. Of course, university administrators at local level are burdened with the clerical work for all this, but I imagine that some checking is done by Border Agency people who could be more usefully employed – at airports.
Citizens of the UK (and the EU) apparently are likely to have to wait for 'only' an hour at worst at Heathrow, compared with longer periods for non-EU, or non-EEA, nationals who must be sick to death of Britain before they get out of the airport. But that hour could be disastrous. I can't imagine that any provision is made for people who arrive at Heathrow and have a connecting flight to elsewhere in the UK. This is something that is likely to affect Scots and visitors to Scotland particularly.
The answer may partly be to increase the number of overseas flights from Scottish airports – although Ryanair seems to be trying to put that into reverse at Edinburgh. Routes to European destinations from Scotland are quite well-served, but it's longer-haul journeys that are the problem. Perhaps, since Emirates flies into Glasgow and Newcastle, there should be encouragement for Etihad or Qatar airways to fly into Edinburgh. Or perhaps we have to settle for flying via Amsterdam, Frankfurt or Paris. The Greens will throw up their hands in horror, but we do need a solution to the problem of our dependence on Heathrow. The demise of British Midland as a separate concern only enhances this need, since presumably it will mean that BA's monopoly on routes from Heathrow to Scotland will be reflected in its fare structures.
Our problem here is that the numbers don't stack up. This was clear when, not so long after it started up, the excellent ferry service from Rosyth to Zeebrugge found itself in trouble. A lack of freight traffic was said to be the problem. No doubt many companies were pleased enough with the ferry route that already existed to the continent from Newcastle and felt no need to change to Rosyth. And there was not the weight of numbers from Scotland that made it a worthwhile endeavour. Do we have the weight of numbers to provide a clientèle for more international flights from Scotland, including more long-haul flights? There has been talk of direct flights to China, for example, without examining this indicator of viability.
Still, we perhaps should not get too exercised about being delayed at immigration at Heathrow and possibly missing a connecting flight. The overload at Heathrow – with too many terminals (and therefore passengers) for the number of runways – ensures that pretty much any flight after midday is delayed, with knock-on effects into the evening. The chances of a late afternoon or evening flight to Edinburgh or Glasgow being on time leaving Heathrow are not high, so we can stand in the immigration queues without panicking.
Jill Stephenson is former professor of modern German history at the University of Edinburgh