Black, British and under scrutiny

Passport control: Probation officer speaks of his anger after airline staff singled him out from white passengers
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Tony Kelly is proud to be a black, British professional. His British passport carries an indefinite multiple US entry visa because he travels regularly. When British Airways at Birmingham airport took away his passport on the false premise that his seat bookings were wrong, and photocopied it, he felt as if he had been kicked in the teeth. Then he got angry.

"I was quite incensed. They kept us waiting a good time while they were doing this. Then one of the stewardesses, a different one from the one who took our passports, came back and said sorry for the delay, but the photocopier was broken.

"When the first woman came back I asked her: `How can you be so devious?' In fact, the whole thing didn't stand up: when we booked the tickets through American Express in Birmingham the system was so advanced that we had been allocated tickets long before we got to the airport."

Mr Kelly, 40, an officer in the West Midlands probation service, said none of his white fellow passengers was singled out. "There was another professional black woman in the queue, a teacher, who was seeing her daughter off on holiday and she just said: `No. You are not going to take my daughter's passport'."

He wrote a letter of complaint to BA. Their reply said: "Further to our letter of 20 October we have received additional information which I feel should be related to you.

Upon further investigation, I would like to clarify that it is a US Federal Aviation ruling that all ethnic passports must be checked and photocopied if deemed necessary. As the Birmingham to New York route is fairly new, New York have been experiencing problems with ethnic customers seeking asylum once they have arrived in New York.

"May I stress that this is ruling that we have to abide [sic] and once again apologise if this was not made clear by our staff.

"Thank you for giving me this opportunity of explanation and I hope this will not deter you from using British Airways in the future.

Yours sincerely, ..."

British Airways said yesterday that security firms hired by a number of airlines, "BA for one", photocopy passports in a similar way. But most of the transatlantic carriers contacted by the Independent were adamant that they did not.

Mr Kelly is not impressed. "It doesn't stand up. Our passports were not taken away by a security firm. They were taken by BA's own ground stewardesses.

He is also dismissive of suggestions that BA was afraid he would destroy his travel documents on the flight. "Why would they think that? Do they think someone from Birmingham would flee to seek asylum in New York? The stewardess could see we were a happy, average, two-point-whatever family. If they wanted to take our passports the very least they could do was ask us for them,not use these underhand tactics.

"Let me make clear that I have no objection to checks about the validity of passports at the point of entry to a country. What I strongly object to is it being photocopied, and the underhand methods by which that photocopy was obtained. That's why I wrote to BA and that's why I'm determined to see this through to the end.

"I am still waiting for a satisfactory explanation from BA. Why did they use such underhand methods to get our passports? And why were we `deemed necessary' for this? If I don't stand up to this blatant infringement of the human rights of a British-born black person, then who will?"