Focus on travellers, not passport fads

Some bright spark at Lebanon’s General Security has hit on a potentially money-spinning wheeze that involves selling off desirable passport numbers, presumably to people who believe that owning one will somehow make them more important or desirable – like having a personalised number plate or a snazzy phone number.

But as exclusivity goes, it’s pretty low budget. The most expensive numbers cost a modest $666 and I thought initially the whole thing was a ruse to expose those in need of urgent electroshock therapy. But apparently, it is bona fide, which leaves one asking quite why the country’s security department has chosen a period of political, social and economic churn to hawk such a tacky vanity product.

I then wondered if it had anything to do with encouraging the globetrotting Lebanese to actually apply for a passport. It is hardly a must-have accessory. Those with dual nationality, and they are legion, long ago eschewed the Lebanese passport on the perfectly reasonable grounds that it is expensive and a headache to travel with.

That said, if General Security were to offer Lebanese passport holders a loyalty programme that would speed up the process of boarding an aircraft at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, I would be the first to sign up. I am deadly serious. It baffles me how the Lebanese government claims that it wants to sell the country as a tourist hot spot when leaving the place is like fleeing a Central American nation on the verge of a revolution.

The process starts once you enter the terminal building with a cursory passport check by a bored policeman.

To add to the fun, you have only been there three minutes but stress levels are already flickering because of the chronic Lebanese condition of not being able to stand in line.

Here you meet two groups of queue-jumpers: plain idiots and those passengers, possibly the people who might feel better about themselves with a bespoke passport number, who feel they are too important to wait in line.

They have retained the services of an airport official who, for about $100, will whisk “VIPs” through the lines of the unwashed to the first major security check, an X-ray scan in which bags, jackets, laptop, belt etc are scanned and monitored by a bored security official.

Only then can you check in, a process that can be equally traumatic, especially if you are travelling on Middle East Airlines (MEA), which often has three desks for up to five flights. (There are four boarding pass machines but I have never seen anyone successfully use one.) Once again, the process is made all the more draining by passengers who think they can beat the system by walking straight to the front of the line and/or who have never heard, either of a weight allowance or the international rules about taking livestock as carry-ons.

Once checked in there is the embarkation form to complete and a second cursory passport check to endure before heading to passport control proper.

There, the official will rewrite the embarkation form in his own handwriting and enter details into a pre-Pentium computer before, and with huge ceremony, stamping your passport.

But there is more. When your flight is called there is a another full X-ray check, the second time in the space of an hour that you will have to remove belts, loose change, jackets, watches and laptops.

And just when you thought it could not get any more thorough, at the departure gate, as you are about to board the plane, a self-important security officer, who really should be playing second trumpet in a Sicilian brass band, will take one last look at your passport, in case his three colleagues missed something.

And even then you are not done.

Ten metres further on and within 20 metres of the safety of the aircraft, another officer with a mysterious hand-held device will swab random passengers for traces of high explosives. Just what you need.

My memo to General Security – forget the magic numbers, work on the passenger experience.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.

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