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Something happened to me about 3 years ago, and I have been wondering ever since about how such a thing can happen in these days when security is taken so seriously, and data is handled mostly by computer, minimising the potential for human error. Names have been changed.

My boss, Alice Smith, and I, Bob Wayne, were flying back from the main Madrid airport to London Heathrow on BA. We checked in together (with hold luggage), handing over our passports and a printout of the email from the travel agent that passes for a ticket these days. I was given a boarding pass and told to hurry to the gate. I did so and got all the way through the process, including showing my passport and boarding pass at the gate, and onto the seat that was allocated.

After taking my seat someone else boarded the flight and said I had their seat. We queried this with the cabin staff, and it turned out that I had been given the boarding pass of Wayne Smith, who had checked in online with no hold luggage. I should have been on the subsequent flight on the same route.

Initially I was told to depart the airplane, and that my luggage was not abroad. I insisted it was (I had a luggage tag), and after about 15 minutes (during which they held my passport) I was allowed to remain on the flight. So everything was fine in the end, but clearly could have gone wrong if I had not insisted that my luggage was on the plane.

If the process was human driven, I could see how such a mistake could happen, with someone seeing 2 names (though on different documents) and getting one incorrect identity. However at check in AND at the gate passports are scanned by computer, and the airlines have passport numbers to check that the right person is getting on the plane. I had assumed these systems were taken fairly seriously, as they are involved in the two of the governments hot topics, terrorism and immigration.

How does a major airline make such a mistake that could have serious security consequences as a result of an occurrence that must happen quite frequently (two people with names that can be reformed into a third persons name on a different flight)?

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    Don't forget that computer programs are written by people. Mistakes happen. Or maybe it wasn't a computer error, but an operator misread the screen. You handed over "a printout of the email from the travel agent that passes for a ticket". That's the point where something could go wrong. It was read by a human staff member in a rush ("told to hurry to the gate"), who confused you with another name on the list? But your question doesn't really have an answer, it's like a rant. Jun 30 at 11:09
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    I’m voting to close this question because there's no real answer beyond "the check-in agent made a mistake, probably because of the similar names", which is so vague and clear as to be of no value at all. As WeatherVane says, this seems to be more of a rant than a real question.
    – Chris H
    Jun 30 at 11:11
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    I had thought the community here had enough experience of how this worked that an answer may be forthcome. If that is not the case then closing may be appropriate.
    – Dave
    Jun 30 at 11:15
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    If experienced flyers knew exactly how to circumvent security, they would not post it here. Jun 30 at 11:17
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    I would post this as an answer but for the question being closed. This happened to me once, but I caught the error before I went through the security checkpoint because I had a business class seat on my boarding pass, which I shouldn't have had. It was a bit of an affair to get the luggage rechecked. In this case, the passenger with the same first name and a similar last name was on the same flight, so I suppose the agent was picking passengers from a list on her screen and simply picked the wrong person.
    – phoog
    Jun 30 at 13:36
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Two considerations:

  • It's not straightforward to ensure that a computer system minimises human error. Most of the time, automatisation create new, more difficult tasks for humans. I am not in a position to provide a full analysis of what happened in your example but staff members typically have to match names recorded in different systems or on different documents, a task requiring a lower level of cognitive engagement than actively writing a name by hand and with a higher potential for error.
  • Security is taken seriously but there are always numerous trade-offs. You still have to make the system work for millions of passengers. It isn't, cannot and should not be as thorough as you seem to imagine. There are in fact many ways around the world to take a plane without matching ID. It's not clear to me this particular error could be exploited easily or was a major security breach.
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  • I’d also point out that the purpose of ID checks is merely to avoid people accompanying their friends and family to the gate. It has nothing to do with security - that’s what metal scanners are for.
    – JonathanReez
    Jul 1 at 21:12
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    @JonathanReez that's an exaggeration. ID checks have other intended purposes related to security; for example they are also intended to prevent people on the no-fly list from using false identities to fly commercially.
    – phoog
    yesterday
  • @phoog yes and the no-fly list is security theater too
    – JonathanReez
    yesterday
  • @JonathanReez be that as it may, there's more to ID checks than reconfiguring the social niceties of air travel.
    – phoog
    yesterday
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You mentioned specifically that "the gate passports are scanned by computer" and "the airlines have passport numbers to check that the right person is getting on the plane". Neither of those is quite as you understand it.

When you checked in and your passport was scanned, the passport number was formally associated with the PNR in the airline's database. (You can enter a passport number when you book a ticket, but that number is just a "suggestion". Plenty of people have multiple passports, or change passport between booking and check-in.) The association between a physical passport's number and a PNR was done after the check-in agent visually inspected your passport (particularly the photo) and pulled up (what they thought was) your reservation. The names didn't match, but that's hardly unusual; booking sites and travel agents routinely switch first and last names, combine names together, misspell names, etc. The check-in agent is responsible for ensuring that there's at least some reasonable relationship between the name on the passport (or other ID) and the name on the booking they've found. Their primary goal is to prevent reselling of tickets, not to make sure you aren't secretly a terrorist with a fake ID.

At the gate, the agent scanned your passport and confirmed its number matched the one that had very recently been associated with the PNR. If you'd glanced at their monitor, you likely would have seen Mr. Smith's name, not yours. The gate agent is trying to get people through as quickly as possible. Their primary goal is to ensure that the person who gets on the plane is the same person who checked in.

Depending on origin and destination country, the check-in agent and/or the security inspection people may have also been attempting to match your passport against a no-fly list. I suspect that nobody involved in your scenario was on such a list, so that doesn't really come into play.

Ultimately, it's not much of a "terrorism consequence" if an incorrect association is made between an airline reservation and a passport. What they want, is for terrorists to not get on planes. You, Bob Smith, presented at an airport with a passport, which was verified to be your passport by matching your face to the one in the passport; the name in the passport (Bob Smith) was checked against a no-fly database and found to have no match; the person with that passport was the person who got on the plane.

The security system worked as intended. The airline system had a bit of a hiccup but not a bad one.

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