Airport operator BAA will roll out electronic border gates across London’s Heathrow airport from January, after an extensive test was completed.

The automatic gates read the passports of European travellers – who make up 60 per cent of passengers at Heathrow – and match the data against watch-lists. They are able to scan both biometric and the older non-biometric passports.

The aim is to free the time of border staff so they can focus on the few passengers who are flagged as needing to be questioned further. The system is part of the government’s e-Borders programme, which aims to improve border control using technology.

The new systems at Heathrow will also feature facial recognition, matching passport pictures against the person at the gate. Testing and evaluation took place over a two year period at Stansted airport.

Accenture designed and will integrate the IT system, which is part of the overall gate project run by Raytheon. It has experience in border control gates, large scale watch list matching, mobile biometric checks, and surveillance systems.

Stephen Challis, head of product innovation at BAA, said the system offered benefits to passengers, as well as security and other airport staff.

“Rather than putting passengers through the sometimes tortuous processes of producing multiple documents over and over, with the new system they have short queues and can go through quickly,” he said.

“It also helps airport operators, such as ourselves, to efficiently process the large numbers of passengers we have. And security staff are freed to concentrate on the passengers who are flagged up,” he added.

Passengers who are flagged up may not match their passport, or their data may highlight concerns such as appearing on one of the many international watch lists in use.

In live operation at Stansted, Challis noted, the gates sped up passport checking significantly. They processed a number of passengers in four seconds each, a much higher speed than a fully manual process.