The trinidad Guardian / Hundreds of arriving passengers had to wait for several hours yesterday to be cleared by immigration as only two officers were on duty as several international flights touched down at Piarco International Airport.
Irate passengers were not aware of the reason for the delay and many vented their frustration on social media hoping to get relief.
The incident comes on the heels of last week’s call by the Public Services Association for Customs and Immigration officers to stay away from work for two days-Thursday and Friday-to protest against Government’s move to establish a Revenue Authority.
It was not clear whether yesterday’s short-staff at the airport was part of that protest action. President of the PSA Watson Duke could not be reached for comment.
The situation began to build around 2 pm, according to an at Airports Authority of T&T (AATT) employee, who was not authorised to speak to the media, and got worse after more international flights landed. One passenger said the lines backed up to the tarmac.
Additional staff was called out and the situation began to ease as more immigration officers reported for duty after 7 pm.
Officers from the Piarco Police Station were also called out to assist in controlling the situation as passengers vented their frustration.
Executive chairman of the Hadco Group, Robert Hadad, who was among the passengers affected, said that there was no place to sit and there was “nobody taking care of anybody,” when his flight landed.
In an interview with CNC3 News, he said his flight landed in Piarco on a Caribbean Airlines carrier from St Lucia and when he entered the immigration section of the airport, there was no more room to line up.
He the lines had spilled out to the doors and onto the tarmac.
He said there were people who did not know where to go and this added to the chaos.
“We lined up for half an hour in the visitor’s line and when I realised what was going on then we had to go over to the citizens’ line. There were hardly any security officers around there were hardly any immigration around, there was one immigration officer clearing everybody,” he said.
Hadad said there was nothing to eat or drink and people were in line waiting as long as four hours.
He said while he understood the need to protest, citizens should not be held to ransom.
Rudolph Hanamji, a passenger on one of the flights which landed around 2 pm, in an interview with CNC3 News, said when he entered the immigration section at 2.45 pm the line did not move much.
“There was one immigration officer in the citizens booth and another in the visitor’s booth. Two more officers were added in each section but this did not quell the problem, they were moving slowly,” he said.
Hanamji said he was in line for two hours, and that an announcement was made on the Public Address system that the Airports Authority was short-staffed and that it was trying to obtain additional staff.
He was coming from Toronto but other passengers came in from the UK and other Caribbean territories, he said.
Hanamji said he felt as though he was a prisoner in his own country. Looking around in the line, he said the chaos did not reflect well on T&T since there were visitors, people in wheelchairs and children.
Another passenger, Harris O’Reily, said other passengers started to shout and behave in an agitated manner. Others walked out of the line and sat along the walls in the immigration section because they were in the line for hours and had gotten weary.
O’Reily said he had never seen anything like it before, and that there was no one on duty.
He likened the number of people at the airport, to the number of people seen on the streets during Carnival. He said there was one immigration officer at the visitor counter and two at the local counter when he landed.
“There are people in wheelchairs, there are children and nobody is doing anything to help. Our flight landed and we met a ‘hell of a line’ on the ground. The line right now (at 2.45 pm) is right out on the tarmac, no one is doing anything.”
“There was one officer, for the last two hours and I just saw another officer who is helping people in wheelchairs.”
The Airports Authority confirmed that there were first three large flights which landed one after the next and another one was expected to land at 7 pm.
It also confirmed that around 2 pm one immigration officer was on duty and by about 4 pm three others were called out.
Among the carriers bringing passengers to T&T were JetBlue, British Airways, Caribbean Airlines, WestJet and regional flights.
Caribbean Airlines in a statement said, “Like all airlines with arrivals into the Piarco International Airport this afternoon, some Caribbean Airlines arrivals were impacted by the queues in the immigration area. We continue to monitor the situation at this time.”
MINISTER PULLED FROM LINE-DEVANT
Former minister Devant Maharaj yesterday criticised the decision made to pull a Government Minister out of the back of the line and place him to the front.
In an interview with CNC3, Maharaj described the incident as vulgar and obscene.
“A Minister of government passed through the airport and paid no heed or mind to the hundreds of commuters who are suffering in the airport, but continued to go along his way.”
Meanwhile, Works Minister Rohan Sinanan when contacted said he was aware of the situation and was working with the Minister of National Security to sort out the issue.
Repeated attempts to contact and two messages sent to the National Security Minister Edmund Dillon, who had earlier attended the PNM’s Convention, in Port-of-Spain, were not answered. Immigration officers fall under the Ministry of National Security.