Unless you’re scuttling about in the document-free Schengen zone, an international journey means passing through passport control. This is rarely an experience worth travelling for on its own account, but sometimes a briskly cheerful British immigration officer can make your day at the end of a long homeward journey, with a bit of banter about the weather.
The worst thing about passport control until recently was the queuing, and queues were never longer, nor more unruly, than in the late 1980s and early 1990s at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. In fact there wasn’t anything deserving of the description. There was simply an unstructured crush in front of the passport booths and you had to fight to retain your position in it and to advance. It often took more than an hour, and most businesses paid for business class seats just so that their staff could rush to the front of the melee. The grim, unsmiling scrutiny of the border guards was no fun either, and it could take nearly five minutes for your passport to be examined and stamped.
Contrast that with arrival at Kuala Lumpur, where immigration officers offer you sweets, a smile, an instant feedback machine (green smiling buttons or red scowling ones), and a cheerful ‘Welcome to Malaysia Truly Asia’ efficiency (although, if you’ve got a twist of cocaine in your luggage they’ll just as soon hang you).
Now, wherever you go in Europe, they’ve given us e-passport gates to make our lives even easier. Except that they’re rubbish. They’re more often than not unreliable and they’re too damn difficult for most of us to use.
Compare them to the self-checkout machines we use in supermarkets. Their makers seem to have worked out how to make these machines work pleasantly with humans. They’re cheerful (‘Have you swiped your Nectar card?’), grateful (‘Thank you for using Sainsbury self-checkout’), and more or less moron-proof. I use them all the time. The technology works.
Not so, e-passport machines. Although there must be some standard software at the heart of them, the surface features of these intelligent turnstiles are utterly different, and they’re very far from moron-proof. Often they’re not working at all. There was a row of about twenty of the things at Stansted late last night, but only about ten of them were receiving visitors. It’s hit and miss for me. The Prague ones just occasionally accept my passport, the Sofia ones never, and I enjoy a success rate of about fifty percent at Stansted, Luton and Gatwick. I think I do the right thing, but there are times when I must remove my passport from the reader, and put it in again. It’s an anxious process, especially with all that resentment building up behind you. Have I centred it, or should I press it to the left or to the right? Have I pressed it flat enough?
Sometimes you’re only admitted to the camera part once you’ve naviagated the reader, and then you don’t know whether to blink, or smile, or stay stock still. Sometimes it’s over in less than five seconds, sometimes it’s back to the Soviet days with five minutes of meticulous scrutiny. And often on the screen in front of you there’s this pasty-faced and tired traveller looking back at you in unflattering black and white, that’s you.
I see people struggling. I saw a young lady last night who was trying to make an EU identity card work. Idiot. I saw a man standing in front of the camera with hat and glasses on. Idiot. There are so many morons standing moronically in front of these utterly moronic machines doing utterly moronic things in an utterly moronic way, that you simply want to scream. They shouldn’t let them into the country if they can’t work an e-passport gate.
And then, of course, when I’m struggling myself to make the damn thing work and jiggling my passport all about, there’s the thought of everyone else, exasperated, behind me.
Can’t they make this dreadful experience a better one? One obvious thing is to make the instructions more intelligible. Often, there are incomprehensible graphics that you realise, after a minute or more, are urging you to remove your passport and start all over again, or your shoes, or your head. Why don’t they ‘speak’ to you in the language of your passport (true, they’ve probably got to read the passport first to know who’s issued it)?
Give me the cheerful old immigration officer any day, and the banter about the weather.