DUBLIN - 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 travelling on fake passports — with immediate effect. Until Tuesday, those travelling 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 travellers 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, travelling on a British passport, and 10-year-old daughter, travelling 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 connections to both countries. 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 words for "12" and "65" correctly; and to describe their travel destination. The Greek version specifically asked where she was going "in England," not Ireland.
Dislis, 48, said she had been flying around Europe about 10 times a year in recent times, and never experienced such a restriction on her right to travel.
She went public with her complaints this week after receiving a letter of partial apology from Aer Lingus. It gave her a €200 ($260) discount card for future Aer Lingus travel but indicated that the airline would continue the language quizzes. She also has filed a complaint against Aer Lingus with Ireland's Equality Authority, which could choose to prosecute the airline for discrimination.
Aer Lingus spokeswoman Gillian Culhane said the airline was sorry for the upset that Dislis and her family had suffered. She 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.