On Saturday, travelers arriving in the U.K. experienced significant delays due to a technical issue that caused electronic border gates at airports throughout the country to shut down for the majority of the day. Consequently, all passengers had to undergo manual passport checks, disrupting what was anticipated to be a busy travel weekend. The Home Office, responsible for immigration and borders, announced that the electronic gates were functioning normally again at 6 p.m. London time, without providing specifics on the cause of the problem.
Airport operators had earlier appealed for patience and expressed apologies for the delays as frustrated travelers shared images of lengthy queues on social media platforms, including Manchester in the north of England and London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport. The upcoming days were expected to witness particularly high travel volumes due to a three-day weekend coinciding with a weeklong holiday for most schools in Britain.
Among those affected was Marc Baret, a traveler from northern England, who described the chaos he encountered at passport control, where people grew increasingly frustrated and some attempted to cut in line, prompting police intervention. Baret had initially booked a flight from Chicago to Manchester via Heathrow, but the final leg of his journey was canceled, leading him to head to the train station where he found himself caught up in a lengthy passport check.
These issues arose on the backdrop of U.K. airports, airlines, and ferry operators striving to rebuild public trust after a series of problems caused travel disruptions last summer during the surge in foreign travel following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Electronic passport gates are automated self-service barriers designed to expedite the processing of travel documents. Utilizing facial recognition technology, the system verifies a traveler’s identity by comparing it to the information stored in the passport’s embedded chip.
The U.K. currently has 270 such gates spread across 15 air and rail ports, according to the Home Office. They are accessible to individuals aged 12 and above who possess a passport from the U.K., any European Union member country, Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, or the United States.
Approximately 86% of individuals entering the U.K. each year are eligible to use these electronic gates, as per the Home Office.
Ivan Coninx, who traveled from Belgium to London on Saturday, posted a photo on Twitter showing passengers tightly packed together as they waited for passport control. Coninx described the situation as a “mess” and mentioned that the usual check that takes 10 to 15 minutes lasted 90 minutes. However, he appreciated that Heathrow staff distributed water to the waiting passengers.