How to smuggle a baby on a plane

What would you do to save money on airfare? Or to avoid paying a passport application fee? If you said, “smuggle my baby onto a plane” then maybe you heard about a passenger who allegedly did just that a flight from Istanbul to Paris last week.

It’s no joke. A woman on Air France flight 1891 from Istanbul Atatürk to Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport on March 7 allegedly hid a baby girl in her carry-on bag, according to Air France.

“Air France requested the presence of the French authorities on the flight’s arrival,” said Sarah Mahaney, an airline spokeswoman. “We will fully cooperate with the investigation underway being conducted by the competent authorities.”

French media report the baby was found about halfway through the 3 1/2 -hour flight. Passengers saw the child in a cloth bag that belonged to a woman sitting in the main cabin. During the flight, eyewitnesses said the woman opened the bag, which is when other passengers noticed something moving in it. They were understandably “shocked” to discover a young stowaway.

The woman, identified as a French national, and the baby girl, who was said to be Haitian, were detained at the airport. She will not be prosecuted, according to a French newspaper.

Baby smuggling in carry-on luggage is fairly unusual, and the motivation is usually due to a paperwork problem. In 2015, for instance, authorities in the Philippines stopped Jenifer Pavolaurea, a 25-year-old Papua New Guinean, when she allegedly tried to hide her two-month-old son in her backpack. According to news reports, she didn’t have the necessary immigration clearance for his departure.

What about airport security?

In the era of heightened airport security, how can something like this happen? Air France declined to say how the passenger might have foiled security, leaving aviation experts to speculate.

Agence France-Presse reports the woman, who was trying to adopt the baby, was apparently in the transit zone in Istanbul, and had successfully crossed the customs checkpoint with the child, when she was prevented from boarding a flight. That’s when she allegedly decided to buy a new ticket and hide the child in a bag.

If the reports are accurate, the woman had the correct boarding pass and believed she also had the correct passport and visa for her trip. Authorities in Turkey discovered an irregularity and told her she couldn’t continue her journey. She simply purchased a new ticket, hid the baby, and went to a different gate to board a different flight.

Getting a baby through airport security is difficult, but sneaking her on board a flight once you’re past the screening are would have been far easier. At the gate, agents only check passports and boarding passes, but security isn’t as tight as it is at the airport entrance. There are no metal detectors or baggage scanners to contend with. So the woman could have easily slipped the baby in a bag and walked onto the plane.

The correct response

In 2012, a five-month-old infant belonging to an Egyptian couple was discovered in his parents’ carry-on luggage after they landed at Sharjah Airport in the United Arab Emirates. As the bag passed through an X-ray scanner, officials were stunned to see the outline of the baby. The child reportedly did not have a passport or necessary visa. His parents were arrested and charged with child endangerment.

That’s the correct response, says Mary Schiavo, the former Department of Transportation Inspector General and an attorney for the Charleston law firm Motley Rice. “Parents who travel without the necessary documents and consent and then stuff a child in a bag should have to face the full force and effect of the law, not only for child endangerment, but for international child abduction and smuggling,” she says.

To be lenient on baby smuggling, she suggests, is to open the door to a far bigger problem: custody disputes that can cross borders, with potentially devastating consequences. This already happens even when the paperwork is done properly.

“The danger is especially grave if the parents are citizens of different countries,” says Schiavo. “One parent may obtain a passport for the child in a second country without the national of the first country knowing.”

How do you close this loophole?

Add stricter security checks at the boarding area. Although that’s done randomly in the United States, it’s thought to be too labor intensive to do it with any consistency. And until that happens, this kind of episode could happen again.

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