Page last updated at 16:47 GMT, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 17:47 UK

E-borders 'travel chaos' warning

UK passport
The time taken to check passports could double, ports warn

Travellers could face chaos during this year's school holidays if airlines are forced to implement new electronic passport checks, MPs have been warned.

Eddie Redfern, of package holiday giant Thomson, said e-borders would cause big delays if they are introduced in the summer season, as ministers want.

Ferry operators and Eurostar chiefs also warned the home affairs committee of big increases in waiting times.

The government said the e-borders scheme was already a proven success.

But travel operators warned it could breach EU laws on data collection.

And they said the flagship £750m programme to collect electronic records of everyone who enters and leaves the UK will also miss Home Office deadlines.

'Crucial time'

The e-borders programme, which is due to be fully in force by 2014, is aimed at tackling terrorism, crime and illegal immigration and allows passenger details to be checked against watch lists.

But travel operators from the rail, shipping and travel industries told MPs that the Home Office had not consulted them properly and warned that the system could lead to unacceptable delays.

No practicable method of capturing ferry passengers' passport data has yet been identified
Tim Reardon, UK chamber of shipping

Mr Redfern, head of regulatory affairs at TUI Travel, parent company of Thomson and First Choice holidays, said airlines were being asked to introduce the system at "the very time the industry said... was the wrong time of year to go live."

He added: "Thomson Airways has told the UK Border Agency (UKBA) we will not do that because on-time performance and delivery of the holiday product is very crucial to us at this time of year."

But he added that the company would comply with UK law.

Thomson estimates that the system will cost the airline industry around £100m per year - some of which is likely to be absorbed by airlines and tour operators - and some of which is likely to be passed on to customers in the form of higher fares.

Significant "teething troubles" meant the scheme was being rolled out in eight months instead of 14, he said.

Firms had been hit by severe operational problems and costs because "the Home Office have not done what they promised they would do", he said.

'Colossal queues'

Tim Reardon, of the UK Chamber of Shipping, warned there was "no prospect" of the scheme going live at the end of next year for ferry passengers.

He said companies were yet to find a way of scanning the passports of all passengers without causing "colossal queues" at Channel ports.

We have already proven e-Borders is a success, with it running effectively on many routes for four years
UK Borders Agency

Trials showed taking the data could nearly double check-in times for the 20 million passengers who cross the Channel every year.

Firms also fear that by taking passport data they may breach French and Belgian law which states only law enforcement officials can do so.

Bulk transfer of passenger data could also breach EU data protection rules, he said.

Legal questions

Requiring passengers to provide the information could fall foul of the right to free movement enshrined in EU treaties.

Mr Reardon said: "No practicable method of capturing ferry passengers' passport data has yet been identified - and in the absence of a defined process, no work has been done to develop a system to support it.

"Progress is effectively now suspended pending resolution of the legal questions which will determine what is or is not permitted.

"There is no prospect of e-borders going live in relation to ferry traffic, as the UKBA contends it will, by the end of next year."

If it did, waiting times at ferry ports would more than double, as passport checks currently taking about 20 seconds would take 45 seconds or more.

"That is a significant increase and we don't believe it could be accommodated at peak times," he told the MPs.

He said the shipping industry was working with the Home Office to find a way of speeding the process up.

But he added: "We are trying to find a way. We haven't yet found one. It is possible there isn't a solution there to be found."

Eurostar concern

Mr Reardon told the committee the data can not be collected in advance because many people do not book places on ferries - they simply turn up at the port.

He said there would be significant delays when there were vehicles carrying large numbers of people, such as coaches.

And he also raised concerns that the collection of the data before departure from foreign ports may break data protection laws in other countries.

John Powell, managing director of Dover Harbour, warned of "mile-long" queues of lorries.

Marc Noaro, customer services director of Eurostar, said his company was "extremely concerned" that the scheme would cause significant delays - and that extra waiting times could "negate" a 40 minute journey time cut gained by a £6.1bn line upgrade.

Waiting times could double at its rail terminals and cost the company "several millions of investment", some of which could potentially be passed on to travellers.

UKBA had not responded to a letter about Eurostar's legal concerns which was sent seven months ago.

'Proven success'

He said there were no commercial benefits to the scheme and accused the Home Office of imposing a "one-size-fits-all" programme that was designed to work for airlines.

E-borders could make railway stations overcrowded, double check-in times, and, he said, would be difficult to set up in protected buildings such as St Pancras railway station.

A UK Border Agency spokesperson said: "We have already proven e-Borders is a success, with it running effectively on many routes for four years.

"We have been working with Eurostar and the coach industry for the past two years, and have performed successful trials scanning 96% of documents in seconds.

"We are supporting airlines and carriers to ensure a smooth rollout of the programme that avoids any delays to passengers.

"Counting in and out enables the UK Border Agency to check people before they reach the UK and has already led to over 3,400 arrests for crimes including murder, rape and assault and significant counter terrorist interventions."

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