APNewsBreak: Irish airline ends nationality test

March 13, 2012 - 1:46 PM

DUBLIN (AP) — An Irish airline apologized Tuesday for forcing a Greek woman living in Ireland to complete a language test in her native tongue to demonstrate that her passport and nationality were genuine.

Aer Lingus announced in response to Associated Press questions it would suspend the year-old language tests — employed at its check-in desks in Spain and in Portugal to try to identify people traveling on fake passports — with immediate effect. Until Tuesday, those traveling on Greek passports but unable to show fluency in Greek could be refused permission to board.

The bizarre episode underscored how, despite longtime European Union agreements to ease the movement of travelers throughout the 27-nation bloc, individual nations and companies reserve the right to erect awkward borders in hopes of deterring illegal immigration.

The policy became public after a telecommunications executive in Ireland, Greek-born Chryssa Dislis, complained of degrading treatment when checking in for a Jan. 6 flight from Barcelona, Spain, to her home city of Cork in southwest Ireland.

"The situation was completely insane," she said in a phone interview. "How, in an age of biometric passports, can an airline stop me from flying unless I speak Greek to them?"

Her husband, traveling on a British passport, and 10-year-old daughter, traveling on an Irish one, were cleared for takeoff. The trio had just completed a six-day vacation in Barcelona.

But Dislis was told she must fill out two tests, one in English and the other in Greek, to demonstrate her story was true. When she refused, decrying it as both illogical and illegal, the Spanish company that handles Aer Lingus flights in Barcelona, Newco Airport Services, pulled the entire family's suitcases off the plane.

Both tests asked her, in each language, to read passages aloud; to present all the cash in her possession; to sketch a ladder and a triangle; to identify the spelled-out versions of four numbers correctly; and to describe their travel destination. The Greek version asked where she was going "in England," not Ireland.

Dislis, 48, said she had been flying around Europe about 10 times annually in recent years, and never experienced such an unreasonable restriction on her right to travel.

"I had absolutely no way out if I wanted to fly," she said.

When she asked for copies of the completed tests, this was refused. When her husband then photographed them on the counter, the staff called airport police to have the camera seized.

"The manager went ballistic. He threatened to have the police destroy all our photographs from our holidays," she said. "Fortunately the policewoman who arrived was extremely sensible, defused the situation, and told the check-in desk to stop messing us about and put us on the plane."

The couple did agree to delete their photographs of the tests — but later retrieved them from the camera's electronic garbage bin.

She recalled asking the Spanish staff if any of them even spoke Greek. None did. "So the whole exercise was completely absurd," she said. "I could have written 'Three Little Pigs' on the form and they wouldn't have known any better."

Dislis went public with her complaints this week after receiving a letter of partial apology from the office of Aer Lingus chief executive Christoph Mueller. It gave her a euro200 ($260) discount card for future Aer Lingus travel but offered no indication that the airline would restrict or stop the language quizzes.

She also has filed a complaint against Aer Lingus with the Equality Authority of Ireland, which could choose to prosecute and fine the airline for discriminatory practices.

Dislis noted that it's not uncommon for people to hold passports from a relative's home country yet not be fluent in its language. She noted that her two daughters, including a 20-year-old at university in Dublin, spoke little Greek. "My older daughter also has a Greek passport and she'd have flunked that test," she said.

Aer Lingus spokeswoman Gillian Culhane, contacted by the AP, said the airline was sorry for the upset that Dislis and her family had suffered. Later, Culhane said the airline had suspended use of the tests effective Tuesday.

Culhane said Aer Lingus received the tests from the United Kingdom Border Agency in early 2011 as part of a British warning that illegal immigrants were increasingly using fake Greek passports, particularly through Spain and Portugal, to gain entry to Britain and Ireland. The British and Irish maintain border controls with the rest of Europe but do not require passports to travel between their own two countries.

The UK Border Agency did not respond to AP questions seeking clarification on its tests, how widely they have been used, by which airlines, and any statistics to show how many people had been refused permission to fly because they could not write, read or speak the language of their passport origin.

Officials at the Spanish airline handling agency Newco, Spain's National Airport Authority and the Spanish National Police said they could shed no light on the extent of use of such language-proficiency tests at airline check-in desks.

Newco said it had no official available to speak on the subject because the company is in turmoil following a February bankruptcy order and massive staff layoffs. The other two agencies said they were unaware that companies operating in Spain were using British language tests at check-in desks.

However, Dislis supplied the AP with an emailed Jan. 20 letter from Newco apologizing for how she was treated. The letter, identified as coming from claims department official Esther Gonzalez, contained broad, unsubstantiated claims about the threat posed by fake Greek passports.

"One of the most effective tools to determine if the passenger is carrying a valid document ... is a language test," the letter said.

"One of the most forged documents is the Greek passport together with the Portuguese and the Italian. Forged Greek passports are often used due to the difficulty Spanish people have to determine if the passenger speaks accurately," it said. "In fact, most of the Greek passports we have dealt with have turned out to be fraudulent documents."

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Associated Press writer Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.