There are many worse places to be stranded than Prague. But by Wednesday this week, Steve Vincent was glad to leave the Czech capital – 48 hours after he was due to depart.
Professor Vincent, who teaches at Newcastle University Business School, had intended only to spend the weekend in Prague in the company of friends. But while he and his pal, Allan Poole, were checking into their accommodation in the city, they accidentally picked up each other’s passports.
Mr Poole then managed to travel back from Prague to Amsterdam to Newcastle and reach home while unwittingly using Professor Vincent’s passport. Quite an achievement, considering that ground staff were supposed to check his name against the boarding pass at both Prague and Amsterdam airports – and passport officials in Amsterdam and Newcastle were required to match his appearance with the travel document he was carrying.
Only at one point on the journey – the e-passport gates at Amsterdam – was the mismatch spotted. Yet a human official overruled the machine and waved Mr Poole through.
The identity crisis proved stressful and expensive for Professor Vincent, as well as embarrassing for the authorities who failed to uncover his doppelgänger on his journey between Bohemia and Tyneside. But it shines a light on the sheer impossibility of ensuring that everyone on your plane is who they appear to be.
Despite procedures put in place by airlines and governments, Mr Poole inadvertently evaded checks on two flights and at a pair of passport controls. Shamima Begum – who left the UK to support Isis – borrowed her elder sister’s passport to fly to Turkey and travel onward to Syria aged 15. And two of the victims of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 were Iranians travelling on stolen passports.
For travel to, from and within the US, the American authorities have strict requirements. But elsewhere, airlines are prone to conflate “security” with looking after their own interests.
One leading carrier (not KLM) told me this week: “Due to security requirements, all airlines are required to ensure that customers’ tickets match their passport names for international travel.”
But when I questioned KLM about how Mr Poole had passed the standard check before an international flight, correlating the name on the passport with the boarding pass, an airline spokesperson told me: “There is no EU or UK legislation that states there should be a compulsory check made by the airline at the gate.”
Airlines are free to make their own rules. Between the UK and Ireland, for example, Ryanair insists every passenger has a passport or national ID card, even though it is not a legal requirement within the Common Travel Area to which both countries belong. The airline’s aim is strictly commercial; otherwise, I could in theory buy up loads of seats on prime Friday evening or Monday morning departures between London and Dublin cheaply as soon as they go on sale, and sell them to desperate passengers at short notice and high prices. But that is straightforward revenue protection rather than deflecting threats to fellow travellers.
The KLM spokesperson also told me: “The passenger went through all security checks. The safety of passengers and crew has never been compromised.”
The airline believes that a properly screened passenger is a safe passenger.
There are certainly a few dangerous individuals with whom you would not want to share a plane. But they doubtless have ways to circumvent the rules that do not rely on inattentive ground staff or passport officials.
For the rest of us, the case of the Czech mates should serve to make travellers more questioning when airlines play the “security” card.
All too often, airlines and online travel agents insist that an expensive flight ticket in the wrong name is worthless, saying that it cannot be changed “for security reasons”. Agreed, the name on the reservation cannot change. But the name of the person can. There is one sure way to rescue its value: changing one’s name by deed poll and obtaining a passport in that new identity. That shows that some aspects of aviation security are simply a charade.
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