Airport chaos as eGates down for the count across UK

Travelers told routine work being performed nationwide

Updated Thousands of travelers are stuck at UK airports as the dual gremlins of "planned maintenance" for eGates and air traffic control restrictions led to delayed and canceled flights along with long queues at the border.

Would-be passengers confirmed, via social media, hours-long queues at Gatwick Airport while they have their passports hand checked by officials after being told the automated passport-scanning gates had been shut down for "updating." Earlier this morning the eGates were down nationally, though some have reportedly opened.

According to authorities, there are a total of 264 eGates in the UK, at 15 air and rail terminals.

The gates use facial recog technology to compare the passenger's faces to the scanned photos from their passports. The gates are monitored by Border Force officers, so anyone rejected at a working eGate is then sent to a manned passport check to have their identity and passport scrutinized. The automated self-service barriers were meant to lessen the queues by using data stored in biometric passport chips – though the microchip can be damaged. If you're traveling with an under-12, your chipped passport won't help you – although accompanied 12-17s may travel through the gates.

The electronic passport gates are supposed to supplant border officers so if "low-risk" travelers have a biometric passport, they can simply scan it, thereby easing queues for Brits, EU folks and people with chipped passports from the US, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea.

To add insult to injury for some travelers today, a social media handler for London Gatwick confessed that "short notice sickness" and poor weather meant that temporary ATC restrictions were in place, "which may cause delays or cancellations by airlines."

Air Traffic Control techies could be forgiven for feeling a little under the weather after the nightmare of several weeks back, where a technical error at National Air Traffic Systems (NATS) sparked chaos over UK airspace on August 28 that was followed by weeks of flight rescheduling.

One miserable traveler said Gatwick had just canceled his return flight after his outgoing flight was delayed by three hours all while "eGates down and thousands waiting."

An eGate failure during the May bank holiday weekend earlier this year also resulted in queues of several hours at airports including Heathrow and Gatwick. A Home Office spokesperson said at the time this was the result of an unspecified "IT issue."

International hub

According to OAG's monthly aviation data, London's Heathrow Airport – which serves 4.3 million passengers a month – is the busiest airport in Europe. There is a small gap between LHR and Istanbul Airport, the second busiest with 4.2 million seats.

The Home Office has spent an estimated £311 million ($280 million) building systems in its Digital Services at the Border, according to a 2020 NAO report [PDF] – and it was a key part of a the country's plan to "provide the border controls required following the UK's decision to leave the EU."

UK border control photo via Shutterstock

Key pillar in the UK's border control upgrade programme 'lacks a systems integrator'


Collectively the UK airports serve hundreds of thousands of passengers each day, meaning there's an enormous knock-on effect when things go wrong. The eGates issue doesn't just affect people coming to Britain on purpose. London is a hub for flights from the US and Asia into Europe more generally so passengers with connecting flights are also affected because international flights need to pass through passport control/immigration.

Last year, the current Home Office provider of eGates, Vision Box, noted its concern that the UK government's ePassport airport gate upgrade program had no systems integrator, while Digital Services at the Border 2014-15 to 2021-22 [PDF] was upgrading 298 automated eGates to allow them to link to new systems built to secure UK borders and remove their reliance on legacy data systems.

As we reported at the time, it was not just a technical upgrade but rather building a fresh system to connect eGates to Border Crossing, a project that holds records on "people of interest" to border agencies and which itself has suffered delays and budget busting issues. It replaced Warnings Index, a 26-year-old system supported by Fujitsu until April 30, 2022.

The Home Office told us at the time: "The ePassport Gate rollout to the new platform was completed last year, and we are committed to making further improvements. ePassport Gate technology continues to be part of the overall strategy to make our border as efficient, smart, and responsive as possible."

We have asked the Home Office, which looks after Border Force, for comment about today's issues and how the maintenance program for the automated gates is scheduled more generally. ®

Updated on 22 September to add:

The Home Office has been in touch to say: "This morning, eGates at Luton and Gatwick were temporarily closed for routine maintenance.

"We have been working hard to minimize disruption and apologise to all passengers for the inconvenience caused."

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