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Good riddance to airport landing cards

There are now far better ways to vet incoming passengers than paper forms by Michael Skapinker

When the UK government announced last week that it planned to scrap paper landing cards for non-EU visitors, some tried to scare us with the security risks.

Landing cards were a “useful intelligence tool”, David Wood, former Home Office directorgeneral of immigration enforcement, told The Times. “We could access them to find out where someone was staying or where they had stayed if we were carrying out an investigation.”

This sounded a little thin. Would anyone coming to Britain to commit a criminal or terrorist act tell the authorities the real address at which they were staying?

As a long-ago naturalised Briton, I have not completed a UK landing card for decades, but I still have to fill one in when going to many other places.

Landing cards are an aircraft inconvenience, requiring you to have a pen, your passport and the address of your hotel somewhere on your person rather than in your hand luggage in the overhead compartment.

  • They are used primarily to supplement ONS estimates of how many people are coming to and leaving the country. They are not often used to track down criminals and terrorists

Completing the cards in the immigration queue after landing means finding something to press on, while not irritating those in the line behind you when you fumble with your documents. 

A design quirk in the old US arrivals forms, or perhaps just my ineptitude, meant I invariably wrote my surname above the line that I was supposed to.

None of this matters, of course, compared with the importance of obtaining necessary information about people visiting a country, but I did always wonder what happened to these slips of paper after you handed them to the immigration officer.

Where were these millions of documents stored? And how — in alphabetical order, by flight number? And for how many years?
The Home Office, which said it would consult for four weeks before scrapping UK arrivals forms on October 1, revealed what I had suspected: it does not hang on to landing cards for very long. “Only a small minority of the cards are retained once the statistical data has been collected,” it said.

The reference to statistical data is significant. Not only are the cards disposed of, but they are used primarily to supplement the Office for National Statistics’ estimates of how many people are coming to and leaving the country. They are not often used to track down criminals and terrorists.

There has, in the past, been only “occasional use of the cards by security agencies”, the Home Office said. “It would be misleading to suggest that all information provided by passengers can be used for later investigations, particularly as it is not always possible to verify all the information provided on the paper landing card.” Quite.

There are now far better ways to vet incoming passengers than paper cards. Facial recognition technology can verify that you are the person whose photograph appears in your passport.

Automated passport gates provide the authorities with all the other information that the chip in your document contains.
Security authorities also have access to the pre-boarding information you give the airline. All that data can be matched against information security services hold on people they are worried about, which is far more easily done digitally than on paper.

Other countries are slowly getting rid of paper documentation, too. The US no longer requires passengers to fill in landing cards, although it does still demand a customs declaration with much of the same information. Australia still has paper arrival cards but has at least got rid of its departure cards, which were always a hassle to fill in just before boarding a flight.

Anything that reduces queueing is welcome and many countries could go further. As I hold a journalist’s visa to enter the US and cannot use the automated machines, I have to queue for a ustoms officer. As I have done this 10 times in the past three years, it surely should not be necessary to take my finger prints on every arrival. Reconciling my face with my passport and checking that there is no further information on me would surely shorten the process for everyone.

Computer systems break down, of course, but airports could always keep a supply of paper landing cards, for what they are worth, when it happens.

There is plenty to criticise about UK immigration policy, much of which — such as unrealistic targets and the damaging counting of students as migrants — was imposed by Prime Minister Theresa May, who ran the Home Office for six years.

But on scrapping paper cards in a digital age, the UK is right. The old booklet-style airline tickets have long gone. Landing cards will one day seem just as quaint.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

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