Simon Calder: Big Brother, Bmibaby and the £5 fee

The man who pays his way
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The Independent Travel

By the end of next year, the Government will know much more about your travel habits.

Already, the US, Spain and several other countries demand to know your date of birth, passport number and other details before you are cleared to fly to those destinations. The Home Office is seeking the same "Advance Passenger Information" (known in the industry by the unfortunate acronym Apis) for its "e-borders" scheme. By December 2010, 95 per cent of international journeys are expected to be covered: whether you intend to leave Britain by scheduled flight, Eurostar train or ocean liner, your personal details will be transmitted to the UK Border Agency before departure. Only those with executive jets or private yachts will be immune.

The Home Office is in the middle of a "country-by-country rollout plan". So, I wondered, travellers to which destinations are currently being watched by Big Brother? A spokesman said the countries involved are being kept secret for security reasons. But a determined villain need look no further than the British Airways website for what appears to be a comprehensive list.

The current targets do not seem to include destinations such as Ireland, Portugal and Switzerland, all served from the UK by Bmibaby. But the low-cost airline has nonetheless been warning travellers that the British government now insists "all passengers travelling to and from the UK on an international flight" are required to provide the Apis data. If you don't supply the details in advance, online, you must pay £5 at check-in.

A reader from South Wales, Bev David, alerted me to the apparent sudden change in government policy. She turned up at Cardiff airport to be told that she had to pay the £5 penalty for failing to provide the information in advance. "If you don't pay then you don't get your boarding card. My husband and I were just two of many caught out this way."

* You might imagine that the last thing the ailing aviation industry needs is another airport hurdle that risks deterring yet more prospective passengers. After all, SkyEurope this week went bust, having lost £20 for every passenger it carried during its seven-year existence. And last year, Bmibaby's parent, BMI, lost £10 for everyone who flew with it.

Bmibaby stresses that "the request for the advance passenger information is a direct requirement from the UK government".

A spokeswoman says, "All passengers are clearly advised by Bmibaby that they have to submit Apis data online and ahead of travel." Travellers are informed on the confirmation page when they book online; on the email that confirms the booking; and are later sent another email specifically asking passengers to submit the required information.

Ms David says, "I was emailed by the company, but didn't respond because it ended up in my 'spam' folder. Obviously this is just another way of taking more money from passengers." However, Bmibaby says the fee of £5 per passenger, per flight constitutes an administration fee.

Strangely, Bmibaby appears to be the only airline that is aware of this "direct requirement from the UK government". A spokeswoman for British Airways, which flies to more places than any other UK carrier, flatly contradicts Bmibaby's assertion:

"It is not currently a requirement for airlines to supply Apis information for all passengers on all international flights in and out of the UK."

Three other significant carriers do not appear to share Bmibaby's appetite for information: its parent airline, BMI; the Scandinavian carrier SAS, which owns one-fifth of BMI; and Lufthansa of Germany, which owns the remainder.

Taking a pasting at airport security

Once you have paid the £5 fee to provide your passport details at the airport, your problems are only just beginning. Next comes the security checkpoint.

"Manchester airport must be one of the most zealous purveyors of security in the world," reports Mark Dobson. "My hand baggage was X-rayed and selected as having a 'suspicious' article within. It was suggested that this might be a tube of toothpaste, and would I mind opening the case?" The offending oral hygiene product was found, and Mr Dobson was asked if he had a clear plastic bag to put it into.

"As I did not, I was directed to a nearby vending machine where, for £1, I could obtain two." This operation accomplished, he was told to put the toothpaste tube into one of the bags. "When I asked what to do next, I was advised to put it all back in my case and carry on. Net result: no change, except me £1 down and Manchester airport £1 up."