GETTYAirlines and airports could be fined for allowing passengers to bypass immigration controls
Home Office chiefs are studying a new civil penalty regime designed to stamp out blunders that lead to travellers being "misdirected" on their arrival in the country.
The proposal is part of a drive to tighten borders ahead of the country's departure from the EU next year.
But airport chiefs described the move as "disproportionate" given the tiny number of cases involved.
Just under 1,000 passengers were not brought to immigration controls in 2014 because of mistakes by an airport operator or airline, according to Government figures.
The integrity of the UK's border is undermined
Whitehall officials say the breaches usually occur because incorrect doors have been opened at an arrival gate or staff sent the passengers to the wrong place.
Such failures can already lead to prosecution as airlines and airport operators are legally obliged to make sure immigration controls are enforced under the Immigration Act of 2016.
Yet ministers want to tighten up the penalty regime with new civil fines that are expected to be easier to impose than under the current criminal law procedure.
Tory MP Nigel Mills, a campaigner for tightening measures against illegal immigration, backed the Home Office proposals.
He said: "It is outrageous that people are arriving in the country without having their passports checked. We can't let this happen.
"There should be significant fines for airports or airlines that allow these sorts of mistakes to occur."
But the Airport Operators Association is currently resisting the proposals.
A spokesman for the association said: “Border security is a top priority for airports and we work closely with Border Force and the Home Office on this - that is clear from the fact that a tiny fraction of the 268million passengers travelling through airports yearly are misdirected and the fact that the number of incidents has come down in recent years.
“We are committed to working with airlines, ground handlers and Border Force to continue to improve on this excellent record.
"We do not believe that the proposed civil penalty should be part of that ongoing work.
"It is disproportionate, given the numbers of passengers involved and the industry’s track record in this area combined with our commitment to continue to improve.”
GETTYImmigration Minister Brandon Lewis
Airline industry insiders are understood to be concerned the proposed penalty regime could lead to higher costs which could be passed on to travellers.
A spokesman for Airlines UK, the industry association representing carriers, declined to comment on the proposals.
Full proposals for how the proposed scheme will work were outlined in a little-noticed consultation document published in November. The consultation is due to end later this month.
In the foreword to the document, Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis said the Government recognises that this is "not a problem of deliberate attempt to circumvent immigration control".
He wrote: "By creating circumstances in which passengers can bypass immigration controls, the integrity of the UK's border is undermined.
"Border Force takes recovery action to locate the passengers and undertakes checks retrospectively on every misdirected passenger, creating considerable extra work."
Under the proposals carriers or airport operators could be penalised following "an occurrence of any misdirection of a passenger or passengers where reasonable steps have not been taken to avoid it".
Fines imposed for breaches of the rules could range from £2,500 to £50,000, according to the document.
Factors that will be used to determine the size of the fine include the number of passengers involved, the number of previous penalties and action taken by the airport operator or carrier following the incident.
GETTYA Home Office factsheet says instances usually happen because wrong doors have been opened
A process for objecting to and appealing against fines would be established, according to the Home Office blueprint.
The Home Office said that when passengers are misdirected they are either returned to border control, or where this is not possible, retrospectively checked against a range of security and immigration watch lists.
While there are no examples of dangerous individuals arriving unchecked because of a misdirection, there is a significant administrative burden placed on Border Force, the department added.
A Home Office spokesman said: "We are determined to eradicate these errors and believe a civil penalty is a vital tool in ensuring this happens.
"We welcome the views of airlines and airport operators on this consultation as we continue to work with them on all areas of security."