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Panic, police calls and the nightmare line-ups at Heathrow airport

An aircraft comes in to land at Heathrow Airport in west London in this April 21, 2010 file photo.

TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS

Just how bad are the delays at Heathrow airport's passport control? Well, let's put it this way: I recently phoned the police to report my mother missing, only to discover that she hadn't disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle, but somewhere even more frightening: The arrivals queue at London's main airport.

I wish this were an exaggeration, because I'd seem less hysterical, and the airport less chaotic. I would like to think that Heathrow, after making headlines for its ridiculous, hours-long queues in late April, had cleaned up its act. It has, on some days; on others, things are a mess.

On June 27, my mother arrived in London on the 9 p.m. Air Canada flight from Toronto. Or at least I thought she had: The cab driver I'd sent to pick her up at Heathrow couldn't find her after an hour, an hour and a half, two hours. He had her paged; no response.

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I checked the Heathrow website, which revealed that the Air Canada flight had landed on time. So where was my mother, who is capable, robust and well-travelled, but no longer in the demographic box labelled "spring chicken"? She had left her Toronto cellphone at home, so I couldn't call.

I knew the line-ups at Heathrow are lengthy for people who don't hold European Union passports – I'd been trapped in one for 90 minutes recently. But the U.K. Home Office, red-faced at the prospect of angry Olympics tourists (and worse, athletes and members of that vast group known as ''the Olympic family'') was supposed to have fixed the problem.

It was almost midnight. There is no way to contact Heathrow that late, and its website advised calling the police in the event of a security problem. Misplacing a parent seemed to fall into that category. My sister in Toronto phoned Air Canada, but the airline wouldn't give us any information, citing privacy concerns. I was at home alone with my children, and couldn't get to Heathrow myself. I had no idea if my mother had had an accident; perhaps she'd swallowed a bad olive with her in-flight cocktail. I called the cops.

The very nice officer at the Metropolitan Police took my mother's details, and wondered, gently, if she might still be in a queue somewhere. "But it's been three hours!" I squawked. I could almost hear him shrug down the line. Fifteen minutes after I'd hung up, the phone rang again. My mother was alive, if exhausted and not entirely pleased with the state of British airport bureaucracy. She has never understood why being a citizen of the Commonwealth doesn't count for beans these days.

That might all change soon, as Canadians will be eligible for a fast-track passport queue – just not in the next few weeks. Visitors from low-risk countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Japan will soon be funnelled through a separate, presumably quicker passport line at Heathrow, the U.K. Immigration Minister Damian Green told a parliamentary committee this week. The catch: It won't happen in time for the Olympics and Paralympics (the six weeks of games begin on July 27).

Mr. Green was responding to criticisms by the committee's chair, Labour MP Keith Vaz, who visited Heathrow this week and declared the queues to be "appalling." Mr. Vaz said he'd seen arriving passengers "stacked" in hallways after overnight flights, and that half the immigration desks were unstaffed. Another Labour MP called the delays ''a national embarrassment."' (The journey through passport control is supposed to take fewer than 45 minutes for visitors from outside the EU.)

Mr Green said that the number of immigration officers at Heathrow had been increased by 50 per cent this week, and that "every desk will be manned" during the busy Olympics period.

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In a slightly alarming development, extra police have been assigned to Heathrow because passport staff are growing afraid of unruly, impatient passengers, the Times reported. "We are seeing public order issues in queues, including slow hand-clapping, abuse of staff and attempts to storm controls," Lucy Moreton of the Immigration Services Union told the Times. (For you non-Brits, slow hand-clapping is a form of public mockery much favoured in this country.)

The government, keen to have things running smoothly when the eyes of the world are upon London, insists that the situation is under control. After the Daily Telegraph reported queues stretching nearly half a mile at Heathrow's Terminal 4 this week, Mr. Green said, "The idea there are endless queues day after day would be misleading now."

I think my mother might have something to say about that.

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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