The Four-Foot-Eight Security Loophole

It’s a tale as old as time: a young boy — in this case, age 11 — is dragged to the shopping mall by his mom. Maybe he needs a new pair of shoes or some pants, or maybe he’s just along for the ride as she runs some errands. Either way, it doesn’t matter — especially if there are no cellphones or similar devices within reach, he’s likely bored. In most cases, the kid just groans about his predicament, asking “how much longer” or “can we go home now” or “is there a toy store we can go to instead” or something like that. But in 2012, an Irish lad named  Liam Corcoran did something a bit different: while visiting a mall in Manchester, England, he went for a walk. This decision quickly turned into a brief nightmare for his mom: before she knew it, Liam was gone, and no one knew where he went.

The good news is that a few hours later, Liam’s mom got a phone call – authorities had found Liam, and he hadn’t been kidnapped or anything like that. In fact, he was totally was safe. But he couldn’t come back, at least not immediately. Liam Corcoran, in that very moment, was about 35,000 feet above the ground and halfway to Rome.

Corcoran’s adventure started at the Wythenshawe Civic Centre, a mall in Manchester, where, per the above, he was likely bored out of his mind. He decided to go for a walk around the mall by himself — and without his mother’s permission or knowledge — and he came across that seemed fun: according to the Irish Examiner, Liam “[found] a [bus] ticket on the floor” of the shopping mall. Already willing to stumble off into the great unknown, Liam decided to see where the ticket would take him. A few minutes later, he disembarked at the Manchester Airport, about a mile or two from the mall at which his mom was still shopping (or, by now, perhaps freaking out). 

Upon arriving at the airport, nature called. Liam in speaking to Irish Central, said “I just wanted to go to the toilet. I wasn’t trying to go anywhere I wasn’t allowed.” But not knowing how to navigate an international airport, he did what many other young children would do: he found other families to tag along with. In other situations, that wouldn’t be an issue (assuming the families he’s now traveling with didn’t care), but in airports, that shouldn’t be possible. Airports have a lot of security — especially since September 11, 2001. To get through the initial security checkpoint, you almost always have to show your boarding pass and ID, and Liam had neither. To board an international flight, you’ll need a passport, and Liam’s parents still had his — and, again, you need that boarding pass. And once on the plane, you need to find your seat, which is printed on the ticket that Liam didn’t have. In total, per the New York Times, Liam “passed without any documentation through five successive security controls” without any problem whatsoever. (In fact, he was only noticed, per the Times, “after he told fellow passengers” that he wasn’t supposed to be there, and when they became “concerned because he was sitting alone and seemed unhappy.”)

For English airport security, the entire event was a black eye; as the Times makes clear, “Liam appeared to have shown that aviation security, essential to protecting the [2012 London] Olympics against possible terrorist attacks, was defenseless against a youngster randomly foiling a system” allegedly improved after the September 11th attacks. But in fairness to the Manchester airport, Liam wasn’t a major security risk. His age aside, as an airport spokesperson explained to the Guardian, Liam “did go through the metal detector and didn’t sound any alarms. He wasn’t a danger to any of the passengers.”

Unfortunately for Liam, he didn’t get to see much of Rome: officials did not let him leave the airport, and instead, put him on a plane back to Manchester about two hours after he arrived in Italy.

Bonus fact: About a decade ago, South Korea experienced a boom industry: plastic surgery tourism. In 2013, according to the New York Times, more than 200,000 people — mostly from China but also from other parts of Asia —¬†traveled to South Korea to have some work done. And that caused a weird immigration problem because when those patient-tourists recovered and went to travel home, they no longer looked like their passport photos. The solution? As Kotaku reported in 2014, “some Korean hospitals are now issuing a ‘plastic surgery certificate’ at the request of overseas visitors.” These documents “include the patient’s passport number, the length of their stay, the name and location of the hospital as well as the hospital’s official seal to certify the document. Travelers can show the forms to immigration officials on their return trip home,” according to Kotaku, and tend to be accepted by customs officials.¬†

Not really a fun fact but helps explain the title: According to the CDC, the median height of an 11-year-old boy in the U.S. (sorry, I can’t find the data for Ireland) is 56.4 inches, or about four-foot-eight.
From the Archives: Why Ottawa’s Airport is called YOW: Not the real reason, but a fun version. Well, not fun-fun, more like “oh no!”-fun.