Why passports and Tipp-Ex don't mix

The BBC, a grouchy old sound engineer insisted during the 1980s, was an organisation devoted to preventing programmes being broadcast. But because it was so inefficient, radio and TV programmes somehow ended up being transmitted anyway.

The BBC, a grouchy old sound engineer insisted during the 1980s, was an organisation devoted to preventing programmes being broadcast. But because it was so inefficient, radio and TV programmes somehow ended up being transmitted anyway.

The UK Passport Service might look like an institution devoted to allowing us to travel abroad. Increasingly, though, it resembles an all-too-efficient machine for making us stay at home.

One London family stayed at home for their half-term because the mother used Tipp-Ex to correct an error on the application form for a passport for her new child. Even though the error was spotted while she was at Globe House, the UK's main passport office, she had to make a new appointment for a fresh application. The first one available was four days later, by which time there was less than a week before the family was due to travel to Spain - and therefore insufficient time to get a new passport, according to the call-centre staff she spoke to.

Another family, from Berkshire, did get abroad, but only after some bending of the rules. The daughter's passport had gone missing, but she managed to get a replacement just in time. Her application was counter-signed by someone she had never met: the wife of a family friend, who lived close to the London passport office, was prepared to declare she had known the applicant for two years and sign the form and the back of the photographs.

Adrian Turpin, from Edinburgh, faced the opposite problem. He lives with the daughter of a retired headmaster - who should make the ideal counter-signatory. Yet his word was not good enough for the Glasgow passport office.

Mr Turpin's old passport still had three years to run. But after some exciting trips to the Tropics, the plastic on the photo page had begun to peel away. So he asked the most respectable person he knew, his girlfriend's father, to countersign the form and photographs. Then he went to the Glasgow passport office to submit the form - which was flatly refused. On asking why, Mr Turpin was told that he was regarded as being "related" to the erstwhile headteacher.

Section 10 of the notes for passport applicants states: "The person providing the countersignature must not be related to you by birth or marriage. Neither should they be in a personal relationship with you ... nor live at the same address."

Since Mr Turpin is not married to his girlfriend, nor living in the same house as her father, and is certainly not in a personal relationship with him, it is difficult to see what he had done wrong.

"All of this is particularly galling," says Mr Turpin, "when you know that they will have on file a scan of my previous application six years ago, which matches the one in my damaged passport and is also recognisably me."

TIME FOR another reminder that you may need to contact the UK Passport Service sooner rather than later. The US government is insisting that any passport issued on or after 26 October this year must be "smart", ie with biometric data, for the holder to qualify for visa-free admission to America.

The vast majority of British travellers will be unaffected - not least because many have no interest in visiting the US. Among those of us who still love the country, only a few need to take action. If you plan to visit America and your passport is due to expire within the next couple of years, you may judge it expedient to renew the document now. The UK will be in no position to issue "smart" passports for at least a year.

Contrary to the impression created by several pro-ID card politicians in Britain, the only thing that counts, as far as the US authorities are concerned, is the date of issue of your passport. If it is 26 October 2005 or later, you will be obliged to visit a US mission and apply in person for a visa. This is a process more painful and expensive than the average private dentist. But by applying for a replacement passport ahead of the deadline, you can avoid such stress - though to make sure your application goes through, take care not to get it signed by someone you know too well.

Prepare For Take-Off

Two quick responses to last week's account of the easyJet aircraft that was too heavy to take off.

One traveller told me he was aboard an easyJet plane that was held up in identical circumstances while the catering was removed - then further delayed when the pilots refused to depart until their lunch was loaded back on. But Neil Bishop, an aviation professional from Liverpool, points out a failure in my analysis. I had expressed surprise that an aircraft capable of flying the Atlantic could be considered unsafe for the short hop from Madrid to Luton.

He explains: "Aircraft limitations are governed by several weights. Primary among these are the maximum take-off weight, maximum landing weight and maximum weight before fuel is added. Your 737 may be able to take off with the required fuel and a full passenger load, but not burn sufficient fuel to get down to maximum landing weight. The longer the flight, the less likely that the landing weight will be a restriction."