Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

A warning for owners of a less-than-pristine passport
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The Independent Travel

Flying on easyJet from the airline's main base at Luton? You could find check-in staff taking an extra interest in your passport. The personnel who handle passengers on Britain's leading no-frills airline are being persuaded to find fault with travel documents through an extraordinary incentive plan called "Passport Points". Every time they spot an out-of-date or damaged passport, they stand to earn £5.

Flying on easyJet from the airline's main base at Luton? You could find check-in staff taking an extra interest in your passport. The personnel who handle passengers on Britain's leading no-frills airline are being persuaded to find fault with travel documents through an extraordinary incentive plan called "Passport Points". Every time they spot an out-of-date or damaged passport, they stand to earn £5.

Passengers on easyJet do not benefit from a frequent-flyer programme - such frills do not fit with the low-cost business plan that has seen the airline expand from two borrowed aircraft to 100 new jets in a decade. Yet the people who staff check-in benefit from a curious kind of loyalty scheme: when a check-in agent identifies and rejects an ineligible passport, the "find" is recorded. After three scores, a £15 bonus appears in the eagle-eyed agent's next wage packet.

The Passport Points scheme is intended to reduce the airline's expenses incurred when passengers are turned back by border officials in the destination country because of flawed documentation. "We encourage staff to be vigilant," says Samantha Day of easyJet. "If we accept a passenger with a damaged passport that is unacceptable at the other end of the route, we are fined over £2,000 and told to carry the passenger back to the point of origin immediately."

To refuse travel to people heading overseas whose passports have expired is reasonable; it saves everyone trouble, including the forgetful passenger, who would otherwise face a wasted journey. But I have two problems with the plan.

First, the rules for the scheme apparently make no distinction between domestic and European flights. For flights within Britain and to Ireland there is no legal requirement to carry a valid passport; easyJet, in common with other airlines, insists on photo ID to prevent passengers illicitly trading flights. The airline is happy for the name of a passenger to change, but in exchange for £15 and any difference in fare. That is why it insists on knowing that the person who turns up to fly from Glasgow to Bristol, or from Gatwick to Cork, is the person on the passenger manifest. An expired passport would meet the airline's commercial needs, but the airline's website requires passengers to provide valid photographic ID at check-in on all flights, including domestic services.

The airline explains that its operations manual allows an expired passport to count as valid ID for domestic flights.

My other objection to incentivising staff to stop passengers travelling is the thorny question of what constitutes a "damaged" passport. After an unfortunate incident one hot day on an overcrowded Nicaraguan bus involving the driver's assistant, a mango and a quantity of brake fluid (don't ask), my passport is not the virginal document that once it was. A check-in agent only one dodgy document short of a £15 reward could well argue that it is damaged and that the only place I am going is home.

The airline is not directly responsible for the scheme, which has been introduced by its ground agents Big Orange Handling. "This is a long-standing industry practice," says Sarah Keeling of Menzies, the main partner in Big Orange Handling. "Employees are incentivised to be extra vigilant in identifying expired visas and passports, absent visas or forged passports."

So don't be surprised if your passport is scrutinised extra carefully next time you fly easyJet; it could earn the agent some cash.

Still, the silver lining is the benefit for domestic tourism: the fewer people who are allowed to fly abroad, the better it will be for Britain's travel industry.

OPEN ALL HOURS

Did you decide in the early hours of Friday that "I've had enough of politics - what I need is a holiday"? If so, you could have phoned someone to discuss your plans - so long as you intend to visit Pembrokeshire.

One of Britain's tourist information centres is staffed 24 hours a day: Kilgetty in west Wales. You can call 01834 814161 right now or at three in the morning, and get an instant response.

Tony Hesslegrave answered the phone cheerfully when I called at 11pm, and explained the remarkable initiative.

The local authority closed down the tourist information centre in 1996, whereupon the community decided to create its own. The manager is Mike Weaver, but when he goes home the phone is diverted to a guest house called Jeffreyston Grange.

This is run by Mr Hesslegrave, who (with his wife) provides 24-hour cover. When the Hesslegraves are away, other worthy citizens give up their time - and their sleep - for the good of the community. But Mr Hesslegrave is not expecting a quick pay-off for his civic generosity.

"I'm new to this part of the world," he told me. "I've only been here five years."

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