Arrivals hall chaos in Lisbon sees government race to improve Portugal’s ‘welcome’ to incoming tourists
National airports are going to be reinforced with 238 police agents from both the PSP and SEF forces during the summer months – of these 168 will be PSP agents who are “still completing their training courses in frontier controls. They will be supervised by SEF counterparts”, says the government. What could possibly go wrong?
In a word “everything”. Last weekend saw scenes of shameful third world proportions as thousands of international arrivals descended on Lisbon airport while SEF inspectors held what they called a ‘plenary meeting’.
The result was an almost full day of passport control bottlenecks, stress and misery.
The plenary meeting (called because SEF claims to have been kept in the dark over hierarchical plans for its ‘extinction’) coincided with the time the airport started to receive the major flux of incoming flights. There was no coincidence at play; the meeting had been strategically planned to show airport failings for what they are.
The truth is ‘passport control queues’ cannot be avoided.
SEF claims this is because there are too few manned control booths to receive them; the government (in the form of the new minister for interior administration José Luís Carneiro) believes it is down to schedules. “There are always peaks where you can have 4,000-5,000 people arriving at the same time,” he admits.
The executive’s plan is to try and make these arrivals’ experiences as painless as possible, and not have any repeats of last weekend where people were “passing out in queues; children were crying, there was no water for anyone, nowhere to sit” and the feeling at best that authorities had completely lost control of the situation (at worst, it was that authorities couldn’t have cared less).
Faro to be first base for contingency plan
As of Wednesday, the government’s contingency plan started to be rolled out.
Faro was the first airport to benefit from the drafting in of extra manpower, followed by Lisbon on Thursday (June 2) and “only later” (we are not told the dates) Porto’s Sá Carneiro, the Azores’ São João Paulo II in Ponta Delgada and Madeira’s Aeroporto Cristiano Ronaldo.
By July 4, authorities pledge that much-needed reinforcement “will have been stabilised” in all the territory’s terminals.
This point should see a total of 529 police agents controlling passenger frontiers from flights outside of the EU, backed by new wonders of modern technology.
Facial recognition and digital identification to weed out anomalies
José Luís Carneiro explained on Tuesday that machines scanning people’s faces and passports “in less than 20 seconds” will be employed as a form of “pre triage”, to weed out anomalies. The majority of travellers are expected to get through this stage without issue, meaning roughly only 10% will require further (manual) processing.
“In this first electronic ‘triage’, cases of passengers who raise doubts will be immediately referred to SEF for checking, to clarify the situation. This way, the checks will not be done at passport control booths, which delays the rhythm of verification for other passengers.”
On paper, it all sounds so well organised. But in reality, there are multiple issues muddying the waters – particularly the simmering fury of SEF inspectors who say no-one ever tells them how their professional roles are being changed. As a result, SEF syndicates are already seeking a subpoena over the plan, saying it is “an attack on the rights, freedoms and guarantees” of its members.
According to union leader Renato Mendonça, the service has “doubts concerning the implementation of the law” regarding other police agents “doing border control work”, bearing in mind “these are competencies not yet assigned to them”, as the law (on SEF’s extinction) has not yet been fully brought into force.
Another big issue is the fact that police drafted in to help at airports are untried. They are essentially agents still in training at the moment, and new to the whole process of frontier control.
Equally involved is ANA Airports authority – or to be more precise VINCI, ANA’s parent company. Both have been criticised for bringing nothing to table in terms of ideas for improving passenger experiences.
Indeed, Correio da Manhã tabloid carried a list of the world’s best and worst airports on Wednesday, showing Lisbon’s Humberto Delgado in 132nd position, at the bottom of the ‘worst section’, slightly ahead of Porto’s Sá Carneiro in 125th place. Leading airports include Athens – even Russia’s Sheremetyevo in Moscow. There are no VINCI airports in the ‘best section’, and four (Lisbon, Porto, Gatwick and Lyon-Saint Exupéry) in the worst.
Lisbon’s dismal Sunday morning sees exasperation splashed over social media
The crowds of people caught out by Sunday’s ‘lapse’ at passport control were in no mood for hearing excuses. “It takes longer to get thru passport control in Lisbon than it takes to fly here”, tweeted one exasperated traveller, taking a selfie in a hall packed with people, some wearing masks, others clearly showing expressions of pained exhaustion.
The chief issue last Sunday was that travellers were given no heads up when they arrived. The aircraft disembarking them did not warn of what was coming; there were complaints that airport staff “were no help if you could find them”, and basically people were packed like sardines, simply waiting to get to the front of a queue that they couldn’t even see the end of.
“If I had known this was coming, I would have chosen a different country” quipped a passenger arriving from Canada.
This was the stuff of PR nightmares for a country where tourism is still the motor of the economy. It came just as figures for tourism in April were published, showing tourism last month surpassed even that of April 2019, before the pandemic hit.
The big question now is, can the government’s contingency plan avoid further airport embarrassment, or is it simply another sticking plaster on a systemic problem that cannot be ‘magicked away’ with a few extra hands on deck and a battalion of state-of-the-art technology?
By NATASHA DONN