e-bloody-Passport gates


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.


Who loves to queue?

It’s often said that the British like to queue, but I don’t think that’s true. What the British like is to queue well, in an orderly manner, where precedence is properly established by our time of arrival, and where discipline is maintained even when the bus arrives. For the British the concern is more with quality than quantity. We really don’t like to queue (it’s humiliating), but if we have to queue, we like to do it well

.Bus queue

There are other nations, though, whose people seem to revel in queuing, so much so that they like to do it more than once. I was reminded of this when I was in Rome last week.

In Italy you often get the chance to queue at least twice. At bars and cafes you queue at the cash desk to ask for what you want and to pay, and then you queue again at the bar to ask for what you want and to get it. I’m a system designer. This is bad system design. Who would design a system where you have to enter the same data twice? It widens the scope for error, especially if you don’t speak the language.

But the Italians aren’t nearly the worst. When I lived in Hungary in the late 1980s the Soviet-prescribed model was that you queued three times in shops. First, you queued to ask for what you wanted (often, of course, they didn’t have what you wanted), then you queued at the cash desk to pay for what you’d chosen, and after that you got a receipt and joined a third queue to get what you asked for, all wrapped up in brown paper and ready to go. It kept the working population busy, I suppose, and you could idle away a Saturday morning queuing fifteen times to buy five things.

But the worst queuing I’ve done on a regular basis, in terms both of quality (poor) and quantity (huge), was at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow in the late 1980s. The queue at passport control was a disordered scrum where you could spend ninety minutes elbowing your way to the front, kicking at the shins of those who try to get in front of you.

Departure from Moscow meant five queues: a queue to have your luggage checked, a queue to check in, a queue at passport control, a queue at security and then a queue to board the plane.

And then there was the time I queued eight times in Bucahrest to buy a small ball of string. No, that’s enough about queuing.

Suffice it to say, when it comes to queuing, the British are best.