The man who pays his way

For many of us, the computer age began in 1985. Besides being the year of Back to the Future, it was when Alan (now Lord) Sugar, barely beyond an apprenticeship himself, began selling the Amstrad word processor: £399 bought a keyboard, monitor with blinking green dot, dot-matrix printer, and a couple of funny little plastic discs, which conferred near-magical powers on any inexpert typist or prospective writer.

Mark Otto Smith, a consultant from Twickenham, south-west London, remembers a journey that same year, when he was 21, that involved a computer: "In 1985, I crossed the Channel three times in one day as I didn't have the right paperwork to bring a computer into France."

How ridiculous that seems in these days of free movement of goods and people within the European Union: any of us with a valid passport can freely travel, along with our hi-tech paraphernalia, from Donegal in the far north-west of Ireland to Crete in south-east Greece.

So, last Friday Mr Smith was free to fly with a smartphone one million times more powerful than that Amstrad from Heathrow to Marseille.

For most of us, Marseille is all about the bouill-abaisse. But Mr Smith was heading for France's second city for something less frivolous than Provençal fish stew. He was after a new job.

"I was en route to a final stage interview, to be conducted in French, with a major IT company."

So he checked in online with British Airways and arrived in good time at the departure gate.

Some nations seem to be doing all they can to deter visitors. India's imminent demand for face-to-face interviews and biometric data could well decimate the tourist industry. Egypt and Turkey insist on British tourists having at least six months remaining on their passports when they arrive. At least EU citizens know that they can travel freely within Europe until the passport expiry date – which for Mr Smith is next month.

The BA team, though, decided his passport was not valid enough, invoking the rule that "you must ensure that you have a valid passport ... to enter any country you are visiting." He protested that his passport was perfectly in order, with six weeks left. But his booking and interview were duly cancelled.

Computer says 'non'

In 1985, a paperwork irregularity with the computer spelt "non" and triggered Mr Smith's Channel shuttle. In 2015, Mr Smith's papers were all in order, except according to the computer consulted by BA staff. Mr Smith said three BA personnel confirmed the offload decision:

"British Airways seems to have such poor systems of information that the gate, the airside desk within Terminal 1 and the landside desk gave the same response, apparently fearful of being fined by the French government. The last BA staff member said I had no right to fly as the UK is not part of the Schengen Area."

Explaining to a prospective employer that you are unable to attend an interview because your national airline has banned you from the flight is a test for anyone's French.

An average of one in 40 passengers on European routes has under three months' validity remaining on their passport. So, it seems extraordinary that there was no BA manager around to adjudicate and say, "Of course he can travel, he's flying to a European destination."

British Airways says: "We are very sorry for the mistake and have spoken to the customer to refund the cost of his flight and offer him compensation for his inconvenience."

That compensation comprises 20,000 Avios (enough for a return flight to, say, Istanbul, once some cash has been added to the mix), and Mr Smith's taxi fare to and from home.

The one other element doesn't count: the €250 mandatory payment that any EU airline is obliged by European law to make to any eligible passenger who it decides to offload.

Back to the future?

The unfortunate traveller spent last Saturday obtaining a new passport with the "premium service". "I don't want to have to wait too long before being able to leave the country," says Mr Smith. He concludes: "It gave me a glimpse of what the UK leaving the EU might be like."

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