Letter: Why airlines copy passports

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The Independent Online
From Mr R. J. Ayling

Sir: With regard to your article on British Airways photocopying "ethnic" passengers' passports ("Airline in secret check on blacks", 10 November), we made a mistake in photocopying Tony Kelly's passport. He and his family are British nationals and we had no reason to doubt that they would be admitted into the US. I have written to him and apologised.

I regret that it is necessary to photocopy the passports of any passengers, but we do so as a precaution against heavy fines imposed on us by the immigration authorities of a number of countries including Britain and the US. But this is not done on the basis of their race or colour.

Several countries, including Britain, the US and Canada in effect require airlines to carry out immigration checks before passengers embark on flights to those countries. We, in common with other international airlines, strongly object to these requirements, which turn our employees into unpaid immigration officers. We objected when the legislation was introduced in Britain in 1987 and we have consistently objected since.

If we carry a passenger who does not have the right immigration documents for one of these countries, we are heavily fined. Here in Britain the fines are at the rate of pounds 2,000 per person. In the US they are $3,000 per person, in Canada they can be as high as $3,200 per person.

These fines are imposed even where passengers have valid documents when they check in, but cannot produce them at disembarkation. Last year the Home Office imposed fines in these cases of more than pounds 8m. The US imposed fines of more than $7m, relating to almost 2,500 cases.

If airlines can show the authorities that the passengers did in fact possess immigration documents at the point of embarkation the fines are generally waived.

So in cases where passengers are of nationalities, or are travelling in circumstances, which we believe may give rise to fines under these immigration laws, as a precaution we photostat the travel documents, including passports, at the point of embarkation.

The authorities in Britain, the US and Canada know that we do this, and indeed the Canadian authorities actually encourage us to do so. We also say that we may do so in our conditions of carriage.

But we only do so to avoid the very large fines imposed and to comply with the immigration policies of the countries in question. If the immigration authorities did not expect airlines to act as unpaid immigration officers, it would not be necessary.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Ayling

Group Managing Director

British Airways

Heathrow Airport (London)

Hounslow

10 November

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