I was interested to read about Frank Partridge's Cephalonian experiences with his twins and the tale of the lost passport in The Independent last Saturday. What were the chances, he asked, of being allowed to check in minus his daughter's "precious little maroon booklet"? He felt, understandably in the wake of September 11, that they would be "none". Yet I have just flown back from Oslo on a British Airways flight with no passport and no ID whatsoever.
I had gone to Oslo to attend a conference: I arrived on Friday afternoon, and took a taxi to the Holmenkollen Park Hotel, one of the top hotels in the city, sited on the top of a hill with fantastic views down to both city and surrounding water. The next morning at breakfast, I left my bag unattended on a chair while I went to get some fruit and yogurt.
The fruit counter was no further than five metres away from my table, and it took me all of a minute to put fruit and yogurt on to a plate, but when I returned to my chair the bag was gone.
Suffice it to say the bag was never to be seen again. A colleague helped me with calls to cancel credit cards. I put a bar on my mobile (which failed to be registered, allowing the villain to run up a bill of nearly £900). I decided to ask both British Airways and the British Embassy if I would be able to fly out of the country without a passport that day; staying in Oslo without any money, credit cards, phone, tickets, glasses etc wasn't exactly going to be much fun.
While my colleague dealt with British Airways, I spoke to the weekend representative from the British Embassy, clearly out-of-sorts to be drawn from his breakfast to deal with my unhappy little tale. He said I must go to a police station, report my theft, and get a form stamped. Then, provided British Airways was happy to take me, I just had to go to the airport and present the police form - and there, he said, provided I looked like "a true Brit", I should have no problem with the customs etc. I wondered what he would have said had my name been Fatima Mohammed and my skin colour slightly darker than Osama bin Laden's.
We took a taxi down to a little local police station, where two charming men speaking near-perfect English helped me complete the form. I listed what was in the bag and told them about my passport. They didn't ask me for any further details, simply stamped the form and wished me well.
British Airways had meanwhile told my colleague that, provided the captain of my flight was prepared to take me without a passport, I should have no problem getting on the plane.
So we drove out to the airport and made our way to the British Airways desk. I was sent over to the Servisair desk, where a friendly young man sent some kind of a telex off to immigration in London about me. In a few minutes he had a reply: "OK to travel agreed by LHR". He highlighted this phrase in pink and handed it over. "You'll get through with that," he assured me.
And that was that. I showed the Norwegian immigration official my police form and explained that the British Embassy had said that this would be enough. "Well if that's what they say," he shrugged and I was allowed to pass.
On arrival at customs in Heathrow, I got my pink phrase out and was wafted through. No one asked me my address, tested me on any aspects of identity or sought further details about my passport. I could have been anyone with my photocopy of a police form and pink phrase. It was that easy. So much for post-September 11 security. It's still all about what you look like.
British Airways replies: Normally passengers are not permitted to travel without passports on international flights. However, there may be occasions when the passenger is allowed to, but these are very rare and only when the destination station (in this case Heathrow airport) or immigration authority has agreed to this