Heathrow Airport writes off £5m after sale of e-passport gates

London’s Heathrow airport has written off £5 million after the sale of its e-passport gates to the Home Office's UK Border Agency.

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London’s Heathrow airport has written off £5 million after the sale of its e-passport gates to the Home Office's UK Border Agency.

“In the year ended 31 December 2012, an impairment of £5 million was recognised at Heathrow as a result of a change in the expected future use of automated immigration systems in advance of their sale which was completed in 2013,” the airport said in its results for the nine months ended 30 September 2013.

The airport sold the automated border control gates to the UK Border Agency, which operated them, in April this year. Long airport queues had been associated with the use of the e-passport gates, and it was previously not clear who was responsible for the problems.

However, a Home Office spokesperson said that the transfer of ownership of the gates “brings Heathrow in line with the national border automation strategy and clarifies responsibility for the e-gates”.

In reference to the “future use of automated immigration systems”, the spokesperson added: “We will be increasing the e-passport gate capacity for EEA [European Economic Area] passengers in a phased approach and are in the process of developing automated border controls for non-EEA passengers.”

Heathrow rolled out the e-passport gates in 2009, which is a separate system to the Aurora Imaging Recognition (AIR) system, which went live in Heathrow in 2011 as part of an upgrade to Atkins Passenger Authentication Scanning System (PASS 2).

With the latter system, domestic passengers are enrolled into the system and the biometrics link with the boarding pass when they enter the common user lounges at Terminal 1 and Terminal 5. Passengers are then verified against their previous enrolment before boarding their flight.

Separately, the IRIS immigration recognition system, first piloted in 2006 at the airport, was closed at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 on 15 September 2013 and on 16 September at Terminal 5. The UK Border Agency said that the system was decommissioned because “the age of the system” meant that it was “no longer affordable”.

IRIS stored a person’s iris pattern and passport details in a database, which enabled them to be assessed as they pass through border controls electronically without a face-to-face encounter.

The UK Border Agency said that its IRIS email service will remain open until 21 March 2014 to allow IRIS passengers who need a record of their travel history to make a subject access request.

“Once our email service is closed, all information on the IRIS database will be destroyed as required by IRIS,” the agency said.

As an alternative to IRIS, passengers with an EEA or UK biometric passport can still use the self-service e-passport gates located at all terminals where IRIS was used.

A pilot ‘registered traveller scheme’, initially available at Heathrow and Gatwick airports, is another option. This scheme is open to passengers who have previously registered to use IRIS, are from the US, Canada, Japan, Australia or New Zealand, are a short term visitor to the UK aged over 18 and have completed at least four trips to the UK in the last 52 weeks.

The aim of the e-borders programmes was to enable the government to track almost all non-European Union nationals arriving in the UK and check passengers against security watch-lists.

However, in a report earlier this month, John Vine, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, concluded: “The e-border programme has yet to deliver many of the anticipated benefits originally set out in 2007.”

One of his criticisms was that the e-borders system was still based on the original pilot Sempahore technology, which was developed in 2004 by IBM.

Meanwhile, a Home Affairs Committee branded the e-borders programme a “huge disappointment” and said that it had resulted in the loss of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.