A senior official in Finland’s Border Guard has spoken out about his concerns over Britain’s departure from the European Union, and how it will impact their operations especially during the busy winter months and peak Christmas travel season.
The head of the Border Guard’s International Unit Matti Pitkäniitty highlights issues that will affect infrastructure at northern airports; training and supply of officers; the need to reschedule planes; and delays for arriving passengers from the UK for short Lapland holidays.
“Brexit will have an impact especially in Lapland where the proportion of British tourists in overall traffic is maybe bigger than at Helsinki Vantaa Airport” says Pitkäniitty.
Last year the Finnish Border Guard performed around 176,000 entry and exit checks on UK citizens at four Lapland airports: Rovaniemi, Kittilä, Enonetkiö and Ivalo. The busiest day of the holiday season at Ivalo this year is 23rd December when a dozen non-Schengen flights will land.
Checking passenger passports on arrival
The average time to check each UK passport, from outside the Schengen area but still within the EU, takes around 20 seconds while the passports are examined. But Pitkäniitty warns the time would be more like 60 seconds in the case of so-called third country nationals like China, Japan or Britain after Brexit.
“As EU nationals, we are not calculating their length of stay. But for third country nationals they can only stay here for 90 days within 180 day period without a visa, and during their stay they have to have enough money and a proper purpose for their journey” says Pitkäniitty, explaining some of the extra checks his officers need to perform on third country national passports.
The extra time needed to check 176,000 British passports at small airports with limited resources will have an immediate knock-on effect for operations – most noticeably with much longer queues for arriving UK passengers as they wait for their passports to be inspected.
“We do everything in close cooperation with airports and airlines or travel agencies which bring people here” says Pitäniitty “but one measure would be to enlarge the entry halls in each border crossing point or the airport so we can fit more people in there, and then we can fit more border check booths where the work is actually done” he tells News Now Finland.
Without that extra physical space for Border Guard officers, the wait times will be greatly increased at northern airports.
Charter flight frequencies
The Border Guard would also have to consider how frequently planes can land at smaller airports after Brexit if the arriving passengers create too much backlog.
Most passengers from the UK at this time of year arrive on charter flights for an authentic Lapland winter wonderland experience. Usually those charters arrive in the morning from UK regional airports, and depart in the evening all within a relatively short landing and takeoff window.
“This is even more important that everything is properly planned and prepared when you talk about one day trips to Lapland, where you arrive in the morning and leave in the evening and every minute you spend at border checks is time away from your trip. The fact is we cannot avoid all the changes caused by Brexit” Pitäniitty says.
Training for extra officers
Another consideration for Border Guard operations is overall manpower to do their jobs, and make 176,000 extra passport checks after Brexit.
Matti Pitkäniitty cautions that it can take up to a year to train a Border Guard agent, so time is running out to start recruiting more people, and do any work needed on infrastructure changes at northern airports.
“The deadline is approaching really fast” he says, with Britain set to leave the European Union at the end of March 2019 – less than 120 days from now.
New visa system coming online
Although British nationals currently don’t need a visa to travel to Finland, and wouldn’t need one after Brexit either for short term holidays, they will soon have to start registering in advance.
In the early 2020s, the EU is bringing a new travel system online for third country nationals – including by then the UK – to help improve security, and track people coming into the EU’s Schengen Zone.
The European Travel Information and Authorisation System ETIAS has been in the works for some years, but will require nationals from more than 60 countries not in the EU, but still allowed to travel visa free for short visits, to register online in advance before they get on a plane.
Each British applicant will be security checked, and the system will gather, keep track of, and update necessary information regarding visitors to determine whether it is safe for them to enter Schengen countries or not.
“We will start using this entry and exit system which is a traveler border check system, where we insert every third country national who is arriving to the European Union or Schengen Area. We estimate this will also prolong the border times for third country nationals” – including the UK – “a little bit in the next decade” explains the Finnish Border Guard’s Matti Pitikäniitty.
“From our perspective we want to have a smooth and fluid border crossing for all passengers. For that purpose we are already trying to figure out what are the measures we need to apply after Brexit”.