British Passport

At time of writing, there are still no answers in the disappearance of Malaysian Air flight 370. But earlier this week, much was made about travelers using stolen passports and that being a potential sign of terrorism.

As a travel agent, however, while I haven’t had any direct experience with stolen passports, my initial thought was of people trying to break immigration rules, not to bring down a plane.

Americans are used to being able to fly just about anywhere, with the worst hassle usually being an expensive and/or slow visa process. Most countries allow us to enter rather easily. Citizens of other countries often face far bigger challenges.

Here are a handful of examples. I’ve worked with professors from China and South America unable to transit the U.S. for conferences in other countries. One executive, who is a Mexican citizen, had to cancel a trip to Australia because she couldn’t get an instant visa, which U.S. citizens obtain all the time. And, citizens of India can face all kinds of hurdles to visit Europe.

It is not hard to imagine how people with means are tempted to buy stolen passports, especially if they want to move permanently.

In addition, for many different reasons, people are flying with the wrong identification all the time. And they aren’t all caught, although there are plenty of stories of travelers being hassled over a small name issue. The system isn’t perfect.

A few years ago — after 9-11 — a client called our office about getting a rush replacement passport with an amazing story. His wife had gone ahead to Europe on a business trip and he was joining her two weeks later. When he went to get his passport from the drawer, he discovered HER passport. She had taken his. Flown on it. And, was not stopped.

In another case, I booked a vacation for a couple in their late 60s. The wife was a corporate client. Let’s call her Jane Doe. She told me she was bringing her husband Tommy. I asked if his name was legally Tommy, because TSA needed the name to match. She said,”No, he’s Thomas.”

Later, she called from Hawaii, saying the condo they had was amazing, but there had been a little hiccup on the way out with Tommy’s ticket. It turns out his last name wasn’t Doe but Smith. (Partly my bad, I assumed that because they were older their names matched. I didn’t ask specifically about his last name.)

Called United, where a woman said, “Oh, we can’t change the name on the ticket because he’s flown on half of it, and we won’t board him with the wrong name.” When I pointed out that United had done just that because he didn’t swim to Hawaii, she laughed and got a supervisor to document the ticket for the return.

There are other stories. A long-time woman client just informed me her passport was under “Patricia Anne,” while all her tickets and mileage programs say “Anne,” followed by a middle name not on her passport. And she’s flown that way for years. Another just switched from using initials because United, not TSA, told him he had to change his mileage account to match his legal name. I’m certain most travel agents can add such stories to the list.

Admittedly, it would be nice if airline security had an easily accessible list of stolen passports. In many cases, we also have to assume some people just consider their stolen passport lost, not stolen.

None of this takes away from the pain for those with families and friends on the Malaysian Air flight. However, we are quick to assume terrorism now. As the saying goes, “When you hear hoofprints, think horses, not zebras.”