LONDON (AP) — Travelers arriving in the United Kingdom faced hour-long delays on Saturday after a technical glitch closed electronic border gates at airports across the country, forcing everyone to have their passports checked. manually on what was to be one of the busiest travel weekends of the year.
The Home Office, the government agency responsible for immigration and borders, said it was working to fix a “nationwide border system problem”, although it had no provided no details about the cause of the problem.
Airport operators have asked for patience and apologized for the delays as frustrated travelers took to social media to post pictures of long queues at airports including Manchester in the north of England and London Heathrow, the busiest airport in Europe. Travel is expected to be particularly busy over the next few days as a three-day weekend coincides with the start of a holiday week for most schools in Britain.
“We are aware of a nationwide border system issue affecting arrivals to the UK,” the Home Office said in a statement. “We are working to resolve the issue as soon as possible and are liaising with port operators and airlines to minimize disruption to travellers.”
One of those affected was passenger Marc Baret. He told the BBC he was booked on a flight from Chicago to Manchester via Heathrow, but the flight was cancelled. He sought to leave the airport to catch a train and found himself in a very long passport scrum.
“It was absolute chaos at passport control,” he said. “There were people who were really frustrated and a few people tried to jump the queues. The police had to intervene and one of the passengers passed out.
The problems, which began on Friday evening, come as UK airports, airlines and ferry operators try to rebuild goodwill with the public after a series of issues caused travel chaos last summer when overseas travel increased following the coronavirus pandemic.
ePassport gates are automated self-service barriers designed to expedite the processing of travel documents. Using facial recognition technology, the system verifies a traveler’s identity against the data stored in their passport chip.
There are now 270 such gates at 15 air and rail ports across the UK, according to the Home Office. They are open to anyone over the age of 12 holding a passport from the United Kingdom, any member country of the European Union, Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland and the United States.
Around 86% of people entering the UK each year are eligible to use electronic gates, according to the Home Office.
Heathrow and other airports have promised to do what they can to reduce congestion.
“We are aware of a national issue affecting eGates, which are operated by Border Force,” Heathrow said in a statement. “This issue affects a number of entry points and is not specific to Heathrow. Our teams are working closely with Border Force to help resolve the issue as quickly as possible and we have additional colleagues on site to manage queues and ensure the well-being of passengers.”