I travel a lot. And since I grew up in the US and haven't lived in the UK long enough yet to go for a British passport, I spend a lot of time in the passport queue at Heathrow.
Last autumn, I could expect to spend 15 or 20 minutes in the queue after an evening flight home from somewhere in Europe, before breezing through customs and home.
On my first flight after the Christmas holiday, the wait had suddenly become an hour. I wrote that off to post-holiday lethargy and resolved to contain my irritation. When the next three visits all clocked worse times, I began to worry.
It was around that time that the PR campaign began.
Now, to be clear, I have no inside knowledge of what happened, and neither me nor my firm works for BAA or any of the Heathrow-based airlines. My conclusions are simply based on my perceptions as a relatively well-informed customer.
The first thing I noticed was BAA, which owns and manages Heathrow, expressing a concern via the Telegraph and a few other papers that the long queues for passport control threatened services during the Olympics. The stories struck me as respectful, but shrewdly raised the spectre of trouble at the UK's highest profile event in decades.
Within a few days, the airlines had gotten in the act, recounting horror stories of delayed flights and inaccessible gates thanks to long lines at passport control. The always-useful “sources” began leaking data about passengers spending far longer in queues than the agreed targets, especially at peak times. Other sources pointed out a correlation between longer queues and a reduction in the numbers of border control agents as the result of spending cuts.
At this point, papers like the Guardian, with their more hostile opinions about the current government, began to see an opportunity. Stories started to appear that suggested mismanagement. Politicians in Westminster started asking hard questions of ministers. Explanations were derided and dismissed. Meanwhile, BAA and the airlines appeared to keep the pressure on. The spectre of hours-long queues for the Olympics gave way to simple admonitions that the long lines were becoming an embarrassment for the UK around the world. The Telegraph ran a memorable photo montage on its website counting down the ten airports around the world with the shortest immigration cues. Seven were in Asia.
The coup de grace came on a quiet Monday, when 10 Downing Street let it be known that the prime minister had summoned the home secretary for a private “discussion” about the issues at Heathrow. Readers were left to draw their own conclusions about the number of expletives used during that conversation.
Within 72 hours of that meeting, when I returned from my next oversees trip, there was suddenly a plethora of agents at Heathrow. I was the seventh person in line and clearer immigration in less than ten minutes. Three subsequent trips have proven that this improvement wasn't a one-off.
There's simply no question that PR made all the difference, but I doubt very much that BAA or anyone else involved will ever be writing a case study about it. I expect the communications team at BAA knows exactly what it did and is proud of the difference it made.
On behalf of frustrated travellers everywhere, I'd like to say thanks.