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RwandAir launched a flight yesterday from Kigali (Rwanda's capital) via Brussels to London Gatwick and then nonstop back to Kigali, all on the same aircraft. The intent behind the intermediate stop in Brussels was to take passengers from Kigali to Brussels, but of course also to take passengers from Brussels back to Kigali via Gatwick, where they would just stay in the aircraft during the 1:30h stopover.

However, RwandAir seemingly didn't consider that citizens of certain countries, Rwanda among others, in many cases need to be in possession of a UK airside transit visa when transiting via the UK (Gatwick in this case), even if they stay on board of the aircraft or in the terminal without passing immigration. Also, all passengers on this flight transiting in Gatwick would have to deboard and undergo security checks in the terminal. Since this is a major inconvenience for passengers originating in Brussels and takes more time than has been scheduled for the stopover, RwandAir has not been allowing passengers to book the flight from Brussels to Kigali.

You can read the whole story here (in French).

I have some questions about this whole issue:

  • Why would the UK require certain people to have a visa when transiting airside? These people are guaranteed to never set foot on UK soil, at least for immigration purposes, so why bother about them?
  • How does the UK control whether an airside transit passenger is in possession of a visa? By definition, an airside transit does not involve immigration checks, so the only interaction with authorities which comes to my mind when remaining airside is a security check on your way to your next gate, and even that is not always required. However, at security you typically just present your boarding pass and your passport and the agent checks whether the names match. So at which point would the UK even be controlling your visa? This is an even more interesting question when people actually stay on board of the aircraft and don't interact with anybody at the airport at all.
  • Why does the UK insist on performing security checks on passengers who have already been cleared in Brussels and have stayed in a secure environment (the aircraft) since then?
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•Why would the UK require certain people to have a visa when transiting airside? These people are guaranteed to never set foot on UK soil, at least for immigration purposes, so why bother about them?

Because if they reach the border and claim asylum, they cannot be removed until their case has been reviewed. However, if they hold onward tickets and documents for their destination, which are the main requirements to get an airside transit visa (henceforth DATV), they are considered less likely to do this.

•How does the UK control whether an airside transit passenger is in possession of a visa?

They usually don't; rather it's check-in staff's responsibility. If someone without a DATV turns up at the border without documentation for onward travel or for entering the UK, and claims asylum, the airline can expect hefty fines.

•Why does the UK insist on performing security checks on passengers who have already been cleared in Brussels and have stayed in a secure environment (the aircraft) since then?

One reason that I know of is that the UK has different rules for what can be taken onboard an aircraft (in terms of liquids, for example)

  • "By definition, an airside transit does not involve immigration checks" - as far as I remember, it does. You cannot simply walk into transit area, you go through a staffed desk which checks your passport and boarding pass. They don't stamp your passport though. Note that there is no exit passport control in UK, so someone can leave the airport from airside without much hassle. – George Y. Jul 15 '17 at 5:22
  • @GeorgeY. Depends on the Airport. At most airports I've been to they either check nothing at all (eg Zurich), or just the boarding pass (eg Doha). Some (e.g. Kiev) do often ask to see my ID though, and some countries like Canada and Mauritius require transit passengers to hold a document accepted for entry – Crazydre Jul 15 '17 at 6:20
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    This. These issues are all about misuse of the "hidden city" aspect for asylum seeking behaviour - if it were allowed, it would be a fairly large loophole exploitable for anyone who can afford the airfare. – Moo Jul 15 '17 at 7:50
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    @Mophotla a DATV holder has already undergone scrutiny, if UK immigration had any concerns about asylum seeking behaviour they wouldn't be issued the DATV. If a traveller manages to gain a DATV and subsequently claims asylum, regardless of whether the ongoing segment is cancelled or not, as Crazydre says, their claim would be considered and the airline would be off the hook. – Moo Jul 16 '17 at 2:43
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    @GeorgeY. It's not quite like in the US actually. at last at Heathrow T5, you cannot get back outside without clearing immigration – Crazydre Jul 17 '17 at 2:15
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Don’t know about the specific reasons the UK did this, but if you consider the similar situation in France, that was due to some people booking a ticket to another country they didn’t need a visa for (or could obtain easily) transiting via CDG, and then finding ways to get out of the transit area into France.

Apparently the transit areas are not as sterile as they should be (at least in that direction), and illegal immigrants managed to get into France in numbers high enough that they got noticed.

There have been two reactions to this:

  • the introduction of passport checks at the gate immediately after exiting the aircraft. Passengers with high risk profiles (transit passengers from specific nationalities, mostly) would be escorted to secure facilities and they onto their next flight.

  • the introduction of airport transit visas for certain nationalities, though it’s unclear to me what the criteria are for those and how it helps.

I suppose there may be similar reasons in the UK.

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Re: Further to George Y's info above. Although there are no exit checks by Immigration Officers in UK airports, a passenger who is 'airside'(ie ready to board an outbound flight) and wishes to leave the airport (abandon their flight) must be escorted by an airline (or ground) rep to Immigration arrivals where their travel docs and passport will be checked by Immigration.

  • This is true at MAN/LGW/LHR which are set up for international connections (although passengers for domestic flights don't need to go through immigration, they have their photo checked again against the photo taken on entry to the airside area). Many other airports (EDI/GLA/ABZ/NCL/JER/...) are much more like airports in the US where domestic arrivals decant into the departure lounge mixing with departing passengers and you can just walk out of the departure lounge through baggage claim to the street. – Calchas Feb 5 at 0:24

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