Two things surprised me about an 11‑year-old boy's success this week in evading a series of security checks and flying from Manchester to Rome with no passport and no boarding pass.
First, the fact that Jet2 cabin crew failed to check the on-board "lavs" before flight LS791 to Rome departed; the talented Liam Corcoran-Fort reportedly hid in one during take-off, breaking the important safety rule that everyone must be strapped in a seat in case of the severe deceleration that accompanies an aborted take-off. Second, the absurd competition between airport, airline and Transport Secretary to see who can get most steamed up about the most trivial travel story this year. This was simply a textbook case of how 11-year-old guile can, with a few lucky breaks, swerve some of the barriers that the aviation business imposes before a passenger jets off.
Stage One: get past the official checking boarding passes at first contact with the security search area. It appears that Liam insinuated himself into a family group, and in the inevitable confusing kerfuffle slipped through.
This was the only error committed by Manchester airport's staff. The unfortunate official who missed him has probably had a miserable few days since, which is more than enough punishment. Boarding pass or not, Liam went through the metal-detector arch like everyone else. The official histrionics made it seem as though getting into an airport security search area requires about the same amount of preparation, prowess and permission as the priesthood or the IOC. Guess what: it doesn't. I can now reveal a cunning method to place yourself "airside" at any major UK international airport you care to name by lunchtime on Monday. It involves not subterfuge, but a debit card.
Buy the cheapest international flight you can see online for departure that morning. (Don't be tempted to use a made-up name: that starts getting into deeper water.) Print out the boarding pass. Congratulations: you are now entitled to go through an airport security check and get airside. It might be cheaper, though, to buy a ticket to an Olympic event where two countries in which you have no interest compete in a sport you do not understand. The search experience will be much the same, except there's no duty-free shop after you get through the Games search.
Stage Two: sneaking through the Jet2 departure gate without a passport and matching boarding card. You can imagine the circumstances: an 11-year-old joins the fringes of a large family group, while a parent wearily explains: "That was him when he was eight – stop doing that, Wayne – and Kylie's had her hair cut since the picture was taken." Ground staff and cabin crew, under pressure to keep to schedule, do not focus on detecting juvenile stowaways. But that is still not a cause for concern.
Malicious travellers can always, as the 9/11 hijackers did, turn up as themselves. Or they can use another name and get a fake EU identity card. (Italy's are the most widely forged.) It need not be an exact replica, because the passport-boarding pass check isn't to prevent acts of air piracy that kill thousands. It is to stop fare-dodging. While easyJet insists its demand for photo ID on domestic flights is an "additional security measure", in reality, it is simply to stop my selling you an unwanted boarding pass for a Luton-Aberdeen hop. Young Liam was a jammy fare-dodger on a grand scale, but that is all.
The only element of the story that gives me any cause for concern is that no attempt was made to reconcile the people on board with the number of passengers listed on the manifest. In the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, a terrorist checked in a bag with a bomb aboard Pan Am's London-New York flight and didn't board. The "head count" is aimed at detecting who isn't travelling, but a handy side effect is to detect stowaways.
Time to move on
Manchester airport officials have launched an investigation into what they absurdly describe as "an extremely serious matter". To save time and effort, I suggest the following verdict: "Even with the best-trained staff and robust procedures, things go wrong. On this occasion our minor oversight at security should have been picked up by the airline. No harm done."
I fear, though, that getting through an airport will become even more tedious, with families facing more regimentation. And by obsessing about a regrettable but trivial series of human errors, the aviation establishment will squander resources on empty threats rather than real risks.