British Airways is covertly photocopying the passports of black passengers as they check in to travel on transatlantic routes to America.
The airline claims it is obliged to do this under United States federal aviation rules, but the US Federal Aviation Authority denies involvement.
Bernie Grant, Labour MP for Tottenham, is calling for legal action against the airline under the Race Relations Act.
BA's policy of photocopying black passengers' passports came to light after Tony Kelly, a British-born black probation officer, complained when his passport was taken and photocopied without his permission as he checked in at Birmingham airport for a holiday in the US and the Caribbean.
Mr Kelly, 40, was travelling with his wife and daughter. He said: "We booked the tickets months before we went, through American Express, but when we got to the check-in desk the stewardess told us there was a problem with our seat reservations and they would have to take our passports to sort it out. After we had been standing there for some time a different stewardess came out and said, `Sorry to keep you for so long but the photocopier has broken down. We'll let you have the passports back as soon as we've photocopied them.' I was furious."
He wrote a letter to BA's customer relations department, demanding to know why his passport had been obtained "by such sneaky, conniving and underhand means".
Jane James, of the customer relations department, replied: "It is a US Federal Aviation ruling that all ethnic passports must be checked and photocopied if deemed necessary."
But the FAA denied this: "We don't ask airlines to photocopy people's passports. We have increased security recently, but this is nothing we know anything about. I've spoken to our security people and they said, `It must be another FAA'."
Mr Kelly was so concerned by the reply from Ms James that he lodged a complaint with the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) on Monday.
He also wrote to all the black MPs and Bernie Grant has taken up the case. A spokesman for the CRE said it would be pursuing the matter. "We have used Section 20 of the Race Relations Act in the past against pubs and clubs. If we can show victimisation under the legal definition of the Act and we have the evidence then we could use Section 20 in this case.
"If BA is requiring people of a particular background to hand over their passports for photocopying that is clearly discriminatory. We would ask, why aren't whites being targeted?"
BA said yesterday the practice had been adopted to safeguard against the imposition of severe penalties - as high as $3,000 (pounds 2,000) per person - for carrying passengers without the correct documents. "Some passengers have been known to destroy their documents in flight. It is not restricted to black passengers at all," the airline said. In 1992 the company paid pounds 2m in fines over passengers with faulty documents.
The spokesman added that security firms employed by other airlines photocopied passports in a similar way.
Mr Grant said the whole business was outrageous: "This is what happens when the Government hands over its respon-sibilities to private companies. We do not intend to let the matter rest. We are going to pursue this through the courts."
A spokesman for the US immigration service said last night that it knew nothing about airlines photocopying passports. He said: "It's nothing we would do or ask people to do over here."
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