Government U-turn is causing long security waits, says Birmingham airport boss

Check point: entrance to the security area at Birmingham airport (Simon Calder)
Check point: entrance to the security area at Birmingham airport (Simon Calder)

The boss of Birmingham airport has hit back at criticism of long waits for security queues – saying a last-minute decision by the government had created “a very difficult situation for us”.

Many passengers have complained about long queues at the checkpoint, with some travellers missing flights as a result.

Chief executive Nick Barton says most passengers are getting through security in under half an hour, with additional procedures in place to cope with peaks.

The West Midlands hub was the only major UK airport to comply with the 1 June 2024 deadline for installing “Next Generation” security scanners.

The scanners are designed to allow security staff to get a much clearer picture of any potentially threatening items in passengers’ cabin baggage – and permit travellers to carry much larger quantities of liquids, aerosols and gels (“LAGs”) through the checkpoint than the 100ml container limit.

Birmingham airport invested £60m in the new equipment ahead of the summer peak. The intention was to accelerate the security process. But Department for Transport (DfT) officials did not sign off a relaxation of the liquids limit – and then reverted to the previous 100ml limit nationwide.

As a result many more bags than expected are being rejected – and removed for a hand search.

“Unfortunately, unforeseen events have got in the way of a good strategy and created a very difficult situation for us here at Birmingham,” Mr Barton told The Independent.

“We are still struggling with the consequences of these changes, but we’re working on our plan to improve things.”

Marquees have been erected outside the terminal to allow “pre-screening” at peak times – in a bid to reduce the number of bags that are rejected at the checkpoint.

The airport CEO said: “The anxiety levels of passengers due to travel is off the scale. We need to try and bring that into a reality that people are much more comfortable with. The way we’re trying to do that is to focus on simple messages.

“Three hour queues are just not a thing that happens here.

“The core one is turn up to the airport when your airport airline tells you its check in is open, even if you don’t have a checked in bag to check in.

“Come here typically about three hours before your flight is to depart, which is consistent with broadly all airlines’ guidance.

“This morning, for example, very busy day, the peak queue and the busiest time of the day was 50 minutes.

“The average queue was 24 minutes, very different to what a lot of people are thinking and worried about.

“If you turn up in accordance with these rules on time, you probably need to be prepared in the ‘peak of the peak’ for a 40-50 minute queue.

“It may be a lot quicker than that, and the rest of the day is certainly a lot quicker than that.”

Mr Barton rejected an accusation that he was blaming passengers for breaching the security limits.

“I don’t blame the passengers for that,” he said. “This is a rule that has always struggled to get traction.”

Even though the airport still has the older security equipment on site, Mr Barton said operationally it could not be pressed into service.

“Once you’re committed, you are committed, you cannot go back.

“This is a software issue, and once it’s resolved, then the machines we’ve got can be simply reprogrammed and we can start using them.

“The product that we’ve invested in is superb. Once it’s allowed to be used to its full potential we’ll be proud as punch of this airport in terms of its performance, but also the customer experience that’s assured.

“So I’m not worried about the medium or long term future. Clearly, though, the focus is on today in mitigating the consequences of this change.

“We are causing a challenge to our passengers that none of us wanted, and we resent every day that it’s like this. But this will pass.”

When the DfT made the U-turn, a spokesperson said that “100ml restrictions on liquids will temporarily be reintroduced”.

They said: “This temporary move is to enable further improvements to be made to the new checkpoint systems and will only affect a small number of passengers. For most passengers, security measures will remain unchanged.

“Passengers should continue to check security requirements with their departure airport before travelling.”

No date has been set for a possible relaxation of the liquids rule.