The Air Passenger paper trail

November 04, 2011

I’ve been doing a lot of flying lately, which of course means lots of “dead” time to think about random things you would never normally ponder. Like those pieces of paper you have to fill out prior to landing at cities around the region for immigration, customs, and health officials.

Country by country, each form is different. Some squeeze everything onto a sheet barely larger than a credit card. Some are so big, you have to fold them twice to slip them into your passport. Some ask for the barest bones of information, while with some, you feel they want to ask you for your shoe size, height and eye colour!

What puzzles me most is those questions about whether I am carrying firearms, or illegal drugs. Like I would admit it if I were? I once admitted to a health official at Tokyo’s Narita airport that I had visited Dhaka in Bangladesh within the previous month, and spent the next hour having my bowels excavated in plastic cubicle in a remote corner of the arrivals hall. Like it isn’t already painful enough to have to travel 90 minutes from Narita into central Tokyo once you have flown half way across Asia to get there! Nowadays, I would only admit such a thing if I were feeling really sick. But if I were feeling really sick, I hope I would not be flying anyway.

Did you ever ask why our immigration officials and health officials and customs officials can’t get together and agree on a single standard form, asking the same key questions? Further, since most of this data is now embedded in strips in our “smart” passports that are read electronically as we stand at an immigration counter, why do we have to duplicate the whole process by scribbling it (and most of us do indeed scribble it either on the plane, or standing in a long immigration queue) on a piece of paper which must quickly end in a landfill?

More often than not, the information on my forms is inaccurate anyway. I can’t remember how many times I have forgotten the exact flight number, or my exact seat number, or what road or state my hotel is in. I have written all sorts of approximations and fictions, but no official has ever queried anything except the exact spelling of my name (some don’t want your middle name, if you have one) and an incorrect digit in my passport number.

If they want some information for tourism data purposes, why not just create a separate form for that, and forget the standard stuff that is stored electronically anyway? Or better still (since I am sure no country employs thousands of workers to read the millions of sheets and their indecipherable scribbles, but instead “random samples” each day’s sheets), why not install machines by each immigration queue than people waiting in line can use to input helpful tourism data?

I spend much time at APEC meetings across Asia listening to people talking about the imperative of “regulatory convergence” – the politically correct term is in fact “regulatory coherence”. Why not start on something simple like converging the immigration forms, health and customs forms and – better still – using the data stored electronically to save us having to fill out paper forms in the first place? I wonder how many millions of sheets of paper would be saved in the process.

Picture source: HKSAR Immigration Department.

Last time through the US, after I had given the immigration officer the forms which confirmed the electronic data he could already see from the electronic strip in my passport, I was asked to stare into a mini camera for my photo ID to be taken, and then had to put the four fingers of my right hand on a scanner. Sensible security check, I’m sure. But last week transiting Malaysia, their immigration officials needed to scan both of my index fingers. Of course in Hong Kong, they always scan my right thumb. Why has it never occurred to our immigration and security officials that a biometric scan of my index finger is just as good as my thumb is just as good as the four fingers of my right hand? Why not all agree to scan the same thing? If these officials are truly concerned about our security, surely it would help to be able to compare these scanned digits easily across the region, or indeed across the world?

I am sure there are 1,001 reasons our immigration and security officials can give to explain why their forms need to be different, or why they need paper forms at all, or why they can’t all scan a single common digit. But none is obvious to me, and none are likely to be difficult to overcome.

At our next set of APEC meetings in Hawaii next week, there will be earnest an interesting discussion on an “APEC Travel Facilitation Initiative” that will aim to “improve the overall travel experience for passengers”. They are talking about building “trusted traveler” programmes to speed and simplify immigration procedures, and to improve security screening. Why can’t they just start by clearing up the crazy paper trail? I wonder if Hong Kong’s immigration and customs officials are even aware of the initiative?

* The translated Chinese version was published in Ming Pao on Nov 4, 2011.


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