With terrorism, immigration and Brexit dominating headlines, the subject of how best to govern Britain’s borders is as politically charged as it has been at any point since the Second World War.

Cases of misdirected passengers at UK airports may appear to be a mere footnote to the ongoing debate; instead it has become a significant issue thanks to government proposals to impose hefty civil penalties ranging from £2,500 to £50,000 on airports and airlines that misdirect passengers.

Passengers arriving in the UK on scheduled flights are directed to the arrival airport’s immigration control to be cleared for entry to the UK. In a small number of cases this does not happen, and air travellers are not presented to Border Force. Such passengers are classed as being ‘misdirected’.

The government insists that issuing fines for such cases will ultimately lead to more robust security at major aviation hubs. Industry body the Airport Operators Association (AOA) disagrees, arguing that misdirected passenger numbers have fallen and that the penalties would be disproportionate.

“Border security is a top priority for airports and we work closely with Border Force and the Home Office on this,” an AOA spokesperson said. “That is clear from the fact that a tiny fraction of the 268 million passengers travelling through airports yearly are misdirected and the fact that the number of incidents has come down in recent years.”

Civil penalties: misdirected passenger proposals explained

New powers that would allow the Home Office to operate a civil penalty have actually been on the industry agenda for over two years, having been introduced in the Immigration Act of 2016.

The recent consultation, ‘Misdirected Passengers new civil penalty: Codes of Practice Government consultation’, includes two codes of practice that offer guidance to 1) prevent misdirections from occurring, and 2) factors to be taken in to account when deciding the level of the civil penalty.

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The proposal defines a misdirected passenger as a “passenger who has failed to disembark from a flight within a prescribed control area and/or has not been subject to the conditions or restrictions to be observed within it before exiting that control area”.

Under the new proposals, carriers or airport operators could be penalised following “an occurrence of any misdirection of a passenger or passengers where reasonable steps have not been taken to avoid it”.

While there is an existing criminal offence for a port operator or carrier to fail to direct arriving passengers appropriately, the government believes a civil penalty is a more effective sanction.

“Some airlines and airport operators are simply not investing enough to build failsafe processes.”

“The government recognises that this is not a problem of deliberate attempt to circumvent immigration control,” said Brandon Lewis MP, Minister of State for Immigration. “Misdirections occur because mistakes are made in the handling of these passengers on arrival, and some airlines and airport operators are simply not investing enough to build failsafe processes.

“However, by creating circumstances in which passengers can bypass immigration controls, the integrity of the UK’s border is undermined. Border Force takes recovery action to locate the passengers and undertakes checks retrospectively on every misdirected passenger, creating considerable extra work.

“The government must therefore find an effective way to manage this risk and bring down the number for misdirections,” he continued. “This is why the government introduced provision for a new civil penalty for occurrences of misdirected passengers in the Immigration Act 2016.”

Out of proportion: the AOA responds

The AOA claims it has already put sufficient measures in place and that the number of incidents in which one or more passenger(s) are misdirected has declined since 2014. Penalties, it says, will do nothing other than add administrative burdens, the cost for which will be passed on to passengers.

In the years leading up to 2015, the aviation industry collaborated first with the UK Border Agency and then the Border Force to improve their reporting of incidents of passenger misdirection.

Industry insiders say that while there may have been no more misdirection cases than previously, there was a marked increase in the availability of statistics, leading the Home Office to propose the civil penalty system. In effect, they feel, the aviation industry is being punished for being more open.

The AOA’s main concern is that the move is disproportionate. According to the latest figures, out of 117 million passenger arrivals in the UK in 2014, fewer than 1,000 arriving passengers were not brought to immigration control because of port operator or carrier error.

There are also no examples of dangerous individuals arriving unchecked because of a misdirection.

“We are committed to working with airlines, ground handlers and Border Force to continue to improve on this excellent record,” said the AOA spokesperson. “We do not believe that the proposed civil penalty should be part of that ongoing work. It is disproportionate, given the numbers of passengers involved and the industry’s track record in this area, combined with our commitment to continue to improve.”

The AOA also points to the scattergun nature of the penalty system, which it says will penalise all operators, rather than work with those that fail to take appropriate action to prevent misdirections.

Ground force: investing in ground-handling staff

The problem of misdirecting passengers has been blamed on simple human errors, such as incorrect doors being opened at arrival gates or passengers being directed to the wrong place upon arrival.

The AOA says the new proposals do not take into consideration the crucial role of ground handlers. With industry-wide cost cutting, ground handlers have come under pressure to deliver more with less. In response, airports have invested in measures to make ground handlers’ jobs easier.

For example, one top-ten airport introduced a door-locking system that means a ground-handling staff member has to type in the flight number to unlock the first set of doors at the gate. The doors then automatically open all the way to the right arrivals area, reducing the risk of manual error.

“With industry-wide cost cutting, ground handlers have come under pressure to deliver more with less.”

The debate around misdirected passengers comes at a time of rapid advancement in the fields of artificial intelligence and biometrics, which threaten to curtail and ultimately replace human workers at airports, particularly at choke points such as check-in, immigration and baggage-processing.

In October last year, Singapore’s Changi Airport launched its new Terminal 4, which features a contactless check-in system, allowing passengers to check in and board without having to talk to counter staff.

Traditional security clearances could become a thing of the past, as passengers will no longer have to produce any identifying documents at airports, Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths told CNBC recently.

“Most of the touch points that we currently loathe about airports today – the security and immigration – will disappear,” Griffiths said. “And technology will enable all of those checks to be done in the background.”

For now, the onus is very much on UK airport and airline ground staff to direct passengers correctly and safely – and in the near future that could mean civil penalties for those who fail to do so.