A mystery man who boarded an airplane in China has put a human face to the sorts of security breaches that bedevil officials at international airports. In the end, however, that face wasn't even his own.
Two days before Halloween at Hong Kong International Airport, an undocumented Asian migrant, who appears to be in his early 20s, donned an elaborate silicone mask of an elderly Caucasian man, and used another man's boarding pass to get on an Air Canada flight to Vancouver.
At a time when billions are spent screening air passengers for shoe bombs, bottle bombs and even underwear bombs, the fake-face ruse somehow worked.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told reporters Friday that federal officials "may need to step up our game" to prevent a repeat. Ottawa is now investigating the screening practices of Air Canada. A corporate spokesman cautions that "the investigation is ongoing and the facts are not established."
The Canada Border Services Agency has called the incident an "unbelievable case of concealment" in an internal memo since made public.
The man himself is believed to be a farmer from China's Fujian province, speaks no English and likely doesn't realize the intense interest his case has generated, his lawyer said.
"He's a quiet, polite young man, and I'm sure he has no idea he's been thrown into a maelstrom," Lee Rankin said.
Mr. Rankin, a Vancouver immigration lawyer, said he doesn't get the impression his client masterminded the deception, but that based on previous experience, he was probably following the instructions of a smuggling agent.
While he's never seen an identical case, many refugee claimants use disguises, including dying their hair and donning beards, he said.
Canada Border Services has sent 56 agents abroad to tutor foreign airport-security officials and airline employees in the art of spotting dodgy documents. The CBSA boasts that these "migration integrity officers" are world-class – and credits them for keeping 5,000 suspect passengers at foreign airports from getting on Canadian-bound planes each year.
There are holes in the system though: One border guard said Friday there is only one such agent in China, splitting his or her time between Beijing and Hong Kong. This couldn't be confirmed as the CBSA won't say where its foreign agents are stationed.
The Air Canada employees who were minding the jet-way at Hong Kong International Airport on Oct. 29 would seem to be in need of some serious refresher courses. The CBSA memo says that when the masked man was asked for identification, he showed an Aeroplan card, which contains no photo. And his boarding pass? It was allegedly garnered from an unidentified 55-year-old American, who may have slipped him the ticket at the airport. It is unclear when the man first donned the mask.
The man is now in a Vancouver holding cell as Canadian officials try to turn up more information about him. Database checks have revealed no serious red flags. But "it's a thin, thin file," said one government official.
So who is the masked man? The public may never know.
On Nov. 8 there will be a hearing to review his detention, but he is likely to become a refugee claimant and his identity will then be shielded by law. He'll likely be freed within a few months, as federal adjudicators consider his claim for asylum in Canada – a process that usually takes years.
What went wrong
Passenger screening: A young man in disguise boards an international flight at a major airport, apparently with only an Aeroplan card as identification. Experts say carriers bear the ultimate responsibility for such snafus, and can face heavy fines.
"Migration integrity officer program": The Canada Border Services Agency says it has a world-class program with 56 officers posted to 46 foreign cities to train airlines and airport security on how to spot suspicious passengers. There is at least one of these officers in China, but the disguised traveller slipped through undetected.
What went right
Savvy flight attendants: It was in-flight staff who first noticed something was amiss. Their first clue: The "elderly" passenger had young-looking hands. After he removed his disguise in the bathroom mid-flight, the flight crew notified officials.
A federal investigation: Transport Canada is investigating whether Air Canada broke rules requiring the airline to verify passengers' identities before letting them board.
With reports from Brent Jang, Ian Bailey and Adrian Morrow