Drama at Changi Airport

Friday, October 29, 2010

Those of you following me on Twitter/Facebook had probably saw my update when I said I was being refused boarding because of my passport's renewal date.

I didn't blog about the incident after touching down in the US because I was too tired, still pissed and didn't want to write about this when I was still angry.

Here's what happened.

Last Sunday, Oct 24th, I was departing from Singapore Changi Airport on the SQ12 for LAX.

While in queue for security check I was stopped by a police/security officer after he checked my passport and boarding pass. He insisted that because my passport was renewed in July 2009, it was mandatory for it to be biometric in order for me to visit the US on the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

According to the official US VWP website:

* Machine-readable passports issued or renewed/extended on or after 10/26/06: passports must have integrated chips with information from the data page.
* Machine-readable passports issued or renewed/extended between 10/26/05 and 10/25/06: passports must have digital photographs printed on the data page or integrated chips with information from the data page.
* Machine-readable passports issued or renewed/extended before 10/26/05: no further requirements.

My Machine-readable Passport (MRP) was issued in Sep 2003 and renewed after Oct 2006. Maybe the phrasing in the text is a bit confusing, but if someone were trained for these passport checking, he should damn well know that my passport fits under "issued before 10/25/05" and that no further requirements were necessary.

Alas, I wasn't aware of the exact dates and terms until I looked them up during my transit in Narita. 

Before this trip I had travelled to the US four times in the past year, three times from Singapore and once from London. Not ONCE was I stopped or even told that my passport had issues. When the security staff got my passport he went on haughtily about how I was wrong about the fact that my MRP was acceptable and in actual fact I must have a biometric passport. (Where/who could I check with at that point of time, anyway?)

So he dragged me to the boarding counter where the ground staff were, and repeated his dates and my folly, to a counter of staff who knew no better.

One of the girls attempted to reach the US customs but in vain. Shortly after that she told me they were going to take me off the flight, I heard my luggage being asked to be put on stand-by.

You cannot imagine my shock then, never in my years of travelling was I so traumatized (at such a crucial time too, the flight was due to take off pretty much then).

I couldn't help and started crying. The security guy looked away gleefully.

Eventually someone (probably senior?) on the line with the ground staff seemed to have convinced them to let me go, but they reiterated over and over how I was responsible for myself and my airfares if I was turned away at US customs and deported back to Singapore. And that they were going to ALERT the US customs that I was aware that I was committing an "offence" but still going.

I mean, seriously, IF I were wrong and yet maybe I could have had a chance at landing, why did they have to completely blow it by being unreasonable, putting me in a bind that I could do nothing about, when clearly I had no problems the previous times, where was my warning because all previous times had told me I was right? What was the point aside from making me miserable?

And all these time they were doing everything still without ACTUALLY knowing whether my passport was legible or not. Wtf?

In the end I was let on the plane, still crying and angry and scared that I was going to be deported back to Singapore. But after calming down, the more I thought about it the more it felt wrong. I definitely remembered reading that my passport was fine being MRP when I was making my first trip to the US.

During my transit in Narita, I managed to get online to check the VWP website. It was only then did I finally have a peace of mind.

I boarded the flight again from Narita, going through the security and passport check again without any problems; I landed in LAX and passed through immigration smoothly too—my passport was fine.

I still can't believe how horrendous the security guy's attitude was.

I was clearly a frequent traveller and harmless, and yet through the whole time he was being nothing but god damned happy about my misery. Least he could have done was to be human and try to be helpful or understanding or comforting or something right? Really didn't help that the rest of the ground staff were such a far stretch from being competent.

What IF there was an emergency in my family (choyx10000 touch wood) and I was taken off the flight just because someone THOUGHT he caught somebody committing an offence and can finally rake some extra credits for being sharp, WHO is to take the responsibilities here? I can't imagine the pain I could have been in. For all you know I could have killed myself out of guilt for not being there.

I really do wish I'd taken down their names, but I was so overwhelmed I couldn't think. Argh.

I guess part of the point of this post is to serve as a reminder to myself, part as a warning to everyone to be sure to check your visas and passports before travelling—be clear about all the immigration and customs terms, lest you run into problems, or be wronged by poorly-trained security/ground staff/whatever have you.

Changi Airport, it was not cool. I'm beyond disappointed as a Singaporean.


Richard from Purplest said...

Wow! That's quite a story! And to think that I really admire Changi airport all these years for their excellence. Glad you made it to the US safely and trouble-free!

Alicia Raft said...

That's awful! You should just call anyways and state the time and place you met him, they'd know who was working then! What a prick. :( I'm glad you made it though. I had some problems in customs coming back from Mexico once and they made us wait 3 hours because they were unsure if all of us (in the USA, all white sunburnt people) were mexicans trying to pull a fast one. Crazy airport people. :(

sringangel said...

D: *shocked*
*hugs* T_T
Glad you made it through in the end! Goodness, I say you can still complain to Changi Airport if you tell them when, what time and what date and possibly what gate you were being stopped at. They'll be able to know who was on duty that time.

Yume Ninja said...

I'm sorry to hear that happened to you. I work in an office where we have to enforce rules/policy too. sometimes when my less-educated coworkers try to enforce rules they don't understand i have to come down on them.

it sucks when people who are in positions where they need to understand rules, actually don't get it at all.

i'm glad you go through though!

Liv said...

You should definitely lodge a complaint with Changi Airport. They take these things quite seriously, so letting them know about it would be important to improve the service levels there.

Glad you managed to get on the flight in the end. Hope all is well.

Wolf Schröder said...

That's really unfortunate. I'm just glad you were able to make it.

Rimfrost said...

I know how you feel. When I was going from Copenhagen to Chicago and from Chicago to Tampa, they stopped me in the Chicago passport control. The lady in the counter took me aside to a waiting room where I had to wait for over half an hour (when my flight was leaving only 20 minutes after that) and they were questioning me about everything. I actually started crying too cause they never told me why I was there or what was wrong. When they let me go I just had to run like crazy to catch my plane. Of course I had to go through customs with my suitcase and security check right before the gate. People started letting me through in the line because they could clearly tell I was in a hurry, but then I got shouted at by a security guard that I had to get back in line. It was horrible! I caught my plane just in time all sweaty and stressed out...urgh x___x

mashnash said...

amazing blog post.
i admire your courage to get through the ordeal. some people have no respect for others; what horrible people! must have been one of the worst experiences! I truly hope nothing as bad as this ever happens again. the customs were far too dramatic, its not as if you were flying without a visa etc. your passport was right and ridiculous they would almost deport you.

all the best

Nicole said...

You should complain about the security officer's behavior :9
Did you get his name?

If you explain how incompetent and horribly behaved he was, maybe he'll get into some trouble ;D

Bel said...

Something similar happened to someone on the same plane as me in Singapore too. She was stopped, and the staff/security kept on insisting there was something wrong with her passport. They did let her on the plane, but not till just a few minutes before take-off. :|

Sheue said...

Hi there, i think you should go ahead a lodge a complain on this matter. It's ok if you do not have their names, so long as you mentioned the time and date and which check-in gate it was. they should be able to track down the person involved.

This is unacceptable!


Sven said...

You [b]should[/b] file an complaint. If we don't do this airports will never stop to go very cheap on their security staff.

Melike said...


I just wanted to say welcome to LA! I've been a follower of your work for the past ~5 years (I think), and it's been so exciting to watch you develop as a photographer. I live in LA, too, but I couldn't make it to one of the socials you'd had earlier this year. Maybe next time!


Anonymous said...

Srsly, what the fuck.
If they have the habit of performing this 'prank' on local passengers, you should really highlight this to the airport that there are some jokers working there and attempting to sabotage the airport's reputation. Better yet make a big hoo-haa on the newspaper, so it's your turn to sit back and watch the drama unfold.


Witek said...

I'm glad that it all ended well for you and they actually let you on the flight. Surprising that it happened in Singapore, it seems like about the last place for such a bad and uneducated service.

Raine said...

You know this happened to me when I was going to LA for a work trip too! I transited at Narita and was on the plane to LA, when this STOOPID GUY came over and asked me get out of the plane. He didn't even give me any explanation, and was so rude to me!!! In the end, he allowed me back on the plane. I suspect it has something to do with being a sole Asian female travelling to LA...which is seriously WTF...this is why I HATE travelling to the STATES

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Alan Chen said...

I like to share my horrible experience with one customer service counter in Terminal One Premium Check in Suite We are Australian passport holders. We booked our tickets from Singapore to Xiamen through Bravofly web site(http://www.bravofly.com.au/), it only allowed First name and last name to be entered. We were told at Singapore Airport that there is a special requirements regarding to middle name by Xiamen Airlines, the check in staff (from Premium Check in Suite) said that our middle names were required because we are Chinese. We were insulted by the comments made by the check in staff that middle name is not required for European, in particularly she mentioned that a Caucasian is not required to match middle name. Xiamen airlines has special requirements on middle name but its system refuses to change middle names for more than 4 characters.My wife’s middle name contains 5 characters, so we were forced to purchase an additional costly ticket from Xiamen airline without any option and help from airport staff. We were warned by Xiamen Airline on the phone that ticket might be unavailable if we didn’t pay for an additional ticket immediately. Xiamen airlines didn’t accept international credit card payment, we will definitely miss the flight and stuck in the airport without payment from my relative from China. We felt helpless and under enormously pressure at airport. We travel regularly but this was the worst nightmare we ever had, it ruined our tour. Singapore Airport said they were following instructions from Xiamen Airlines. We suffered a total lost of CNY6134.00 plus enormous stress from this ordeal.