Hundreds of thousands of passengers have been stuck in long lines at airports in recent months, with some travelers missing flights and others delayed departures. These are the key questions and answers.
Why are airport security lines so long these days?
The problem has the same root as the widespread cancellations at British Airways and easyJet: a surge in demand for holidays abroad following the UK’s removal, after nearly two years, of Covid travel restrictions.
The pandemic is having a huge impact in two ways. First, current staff illness levels are higher than normal. But there is also a long-term effect, in terms of the tens of thousands of aviation professionals who have left the industry, taking with them everything from decades of experience to security clearance.
Airlines and airports are now scrambling to hire the right staff, train them and get security clearance. Starting work at 4 am in a high stress environment is not everyone’s idea of a great job.
Also, airports say that during the travel shutdown, people haven’t been flying regularly, so they may have forgotten the “liquids rule” (all liquids in carry-on must have no more of 100 ml and presented in a sealed plastic bag). When you have to manually check many bags through security, the process slows down drastically.
How can I avoid queues?
One strategy is to arrive ridiculously early, say 3am for a 7am flight (although if you’re checking luggage, you’ll need to make sure your airline is open).
At Gatwick, the main holiday airport, the North Terminal security check opens at 2am, while the South Terminal opens at 3:30am
Checkpoints at Heathrow generally open at 4am.
But for the first wave of flights, the numbers add up very quickly: by 5:30am, many UK airports are very busy.
Passenger behavior could actually hinder the process: If travelers who booked at 10am show up at 6am, which may be individually rational, it adds to the pressure on the first wave of departure. Most airports are advising against this as they say it increases queues and prevents people whose flights are imminent from arriving on time.
By mid-morning, at airports with a high proportion of short-haul flights, such as Stansted, Luton, Liverpool and Belfast City, queues have largely eased and remain generally manageable, albeit often with a ” bulge” in the afternoon.
However, at airports with many long-haul flights, including Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, mid-morning is prime time for late-morning intercontinental departures. There is also often an early-night bulge when people check in for late-night flights.
The best plan might be to pay fast track security, which costs £4 in Manchester, £5 in Stansted, £6 in Edinburgh. But keep in mind that airports limit the number of fast-track passes issued — you can’t rely on paying to speed up the process once you see how long the line is.
Some airports, such as Heathrow, restrict the privilege of fast-track security to elite members of airline loyalty programs.
Can I skip the queue?
Possibly, if you ask nicely and have a good excuse. For example, when a delayed train meant I arrived at Birmingham airport just 30 minutes before my Ryanair flight to Corfu, I asked other passengers if I could speed up to the front and took the plane. But if everyone has been in line for two hours and has their own pressing needs, you will get neither sympathy nor cooperation.
Sometimes talking to staff can speed up your progress if they accept that your need is greater than that of others.
What are your rights if you are stuck in a security queue and miss your flight?
First, do everything you can to try to take flight. Follow your airline’s advice on when to report. If the time runs out, inform the airport/airline staff and try to get their help. Once in the area of operations, do not linger in the duty free, obviously, go directly to the boarding gate.
Don’t give up too soon. Airlines sometimes delay a flight to accommodate late-arriving passengers if a significant number are stuck at security.
If you arrive at the gate and miss your flight through no fault of your own, the airlines have no legal obligation to help you.
Some will allow you to transfer to a later flight if space is available, which is sadly becoming more unlikely.
Travel insurance can help cover the extra costs, if you can prove you did everything right.
Surely the airport is responsible, can I claim them?
In the past, in times of exceptionally extreme security delays, airports have sometimes responded to passenger complaints.
But a prominent lawyer says options for travelers who miss their flights due to long security lines are complicated.
Gary Rycroft, a partner at the Lancaster firm Joseph A Jones, says provisions of the Consumer Rights Act, which require companies to perform service with “reasonable care and skill,” do not apply as travelers do not have a direct contractual relationship with the airport.
He said the independent: “Courts will determine that there is a statutory duty of care beyond a strict contractual relationship if three criteria are met:
- “The harm must be a reasonably foreseeable result of the conduct; here I would say that delayed check-in or security checks leading to missed flights is reasonably foreseeable.
- “There must be a ‘proximity’ relationship between the parties – vacationers here have no choice but to go through the check-in/security controls administered by the airport – so I don’t see what could be closer.
- “It must be ‘fair and reasonable’ to impose liability. Here, the conduct of the parties will be relevant. For example, if the passenger arrived in “good time” as reported in the passenger’s documentation, if the airline had enough staff available. An analysis of what has caused the delays and why will be required.”
For a negligence tort claim, says Mr. Rycroft, “establishing a ‘duty of care’ and a ‘breach’ of that duty are the essential first steps in bringing a claim.”
It would have to be shown that security delays caused the flight to be missed.
The subject of damages should be simple: the loss of the value of the vacation or the flight. But as with any legal claim, you should do everything you can to mitigate the damage, including asking the airline to rebook you as soon as possible, ideally at no extra charge.
Brief history of airport security
Why is airport security so thorough?
“Terrorists will always want to target civil aviation,” says aviation security expert Philip Baum. The first recorded hijacking of an airplane occurred in Peru in 1931.
In the late 1950s, hijackings of aircraft from Cuba to the US became commonplace, and unauthorized diversions in the opposite direction soon began.
The UK began to take aviation security seriously in the 1970s, when many planes were being attacked by terrorists. Initially, the controls were quite rudimentary, with a metal detector arch or a rod to check for firearms and a manual search of carry-on luggage.
After the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, in which a bomb was loaded onto a Pan Am Boeing 747 without the passenger traveling, airlines began pairing boarding passengers with their checked baggage.
The deadliest terrorist attack was on September 11, 2001, when four US planes were hijacked and used as weapons of mass destruction. The hijackers went through normal security checks, but took advantage of the absence of any shovel bans and unlocked flight deck doors.
After 9/11, US authorities began to take a much tougher stance on both airport security and passenger backgrounds.
Shortly thereafter, the British “shoe terrorist” Richard Reid was arrested and as a result passengers often have to remove their shoes. And after the “liquid bomb plot” in 2006, a 100ml limit was imposed on everything from shampoo to champagne.