Yes, you can be stopped at the gate because of a damaged passport

Randall Roy was on his way to Mexico when an American Airlines agent in Philadelphia foiled his travel plans. Claiming that Roy’s passport was damaged, the agent refused to allow him to board the flight.

Roy has traveled several places around the world since his passport was issued in 2015 and had zero problems. He asked us to intervene on his behalf, but can we?

When Roy arrived at the airport an American Airlines agent helped him check in. He was in a wheelchair so airport staff took him through security and to the gate. According to Roy, the process of getting him to the gate resulted in two American desk agents and four TSA staff examining his passport. None of them said anything about his passport being damaged.

According to Roy, the gate agent who examined the passport during the boarding process told him the document had a “loose thread,” and was too damaged to travel and that Mexico would not accept it:

The employee at American said Mexico would not allow me in without even looking in my passport. If he had he would have seen six to eight stamps to Mexico — the last one in October 2016, on their airlines with that same thread hanging.

Roy told the agent about his international travel in the recent past, including several trips to Mexico, and insisted that the passport was fine.

Ultimately, the agent denied Roy’s request to board the flight. Roy believes this was a mistake. He wants American Airlines to admit that it made a mistake, give him a free flight and compensate him for his stay at a Days Inn while waiting to take another flight to Cancun.

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Roy contacted us and posted in our forums, asking for help with what he thought was an American Airlines problem.

His original post was emotional, typed in all caps, and was accusatory, calling the gate agent “the rude jerk.” Our forum advocates repeatedly asked that Roy remove the emotion from his original post and try to explain, in objective detail, exactly what happened and what specific damage was discovered with his passport.

He did modify the original post, but the all caps remained, and he never answered several specific questions asked by our advocates. He merely reposted his edited original post and asked, “Is that better?”

There are several reasons we can’t help with this case, the first of which is that Roy never answered the questions our forum advocates felt were necessary to ask before providing advice on his problem.

Another reason we won’t help with this case is that there is nothing we can do to change either the U.S. Department of State’s passport regulations or a foreign government’s. Here’s how the Department of State distinguishes between “normal wear and tear” and a damaged passport:

Damage that might require you to replace your passport includes water damage, a significant tear, unofficial markings on the data page, missing visa pages (torn out), a hole punch, or other injuries.

Normal “wear and tear” of a U.S. passport is expected and likely does not count as “damage.” For instance normal wear includes the bend of a passport after being carried in your back pocket or fanning of the visa pages after extensive opening and closing.

Roy admits that he carries his passport in his back pocket, but the agent’s concern seems to be more than “the bend.”

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Roy also admits that there was a loose thread on the passport that he “could have cut” if he had known it was a problem. I had to wonder why he wouldn’t have already cut the thread simply to avoid any possible claim that it was damaged.

It is also the responsibility of American Airlines to not allow passengers on its flights if they do not possess the documents required by the country to which the flight is traveling. If it fails to prevent a passenger from boarding without the correct documentation, it will be fined.

According to the International Air Transport Authority (IATA), the average fine for a passenger being allowed to board a flight without the required documentation is $3,500. If we assume IATA’s estimate of one in every 25,000 travelers boarding a flight without acceptable documentation and resulting in a fine to the airline, and factor in the Department of Transportation’s report of American Airlines’ 2015 international passenger load of 28,491,900 passengers, American could be paying almost $4,000,000 in fines each year. So it’s no surprise that gate agents would be tasked with extra caution when allowing passengers to board.

What can you do to ensure you don’t end up sleeping in a local hotel rather than on a flight to a faraway land? Keep your passport in a safe place where it’s unlikely to be damaged. I make multiple trips abroad every year and have a document holder with an RFID chip to protect it from damage and from identity thieves. There are also travel wallets that hang around your neck or around your waist and can be concealed under your clothing. Not keeping it in your back pocket protects it both from damage and from pickpockets.

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If your passport is damaged, follow the advice of the U.S. Department of Transportation and replace it. Sure, it might be “expensive,” but the cost to replace it is surely less than the cost of an international flight and vacation costs in a foreign city.

As for Roy, this is a case we will not take. Several of our advocates suggested that Roy personally appear at the Philadelphia Passport Agency and request a letter stating that his passport is not considered “damaged.” While I agree this is an option, it is still no guarantee that Mexico’s immigration offices will agree that it is not damaged. We wish him luck, and caution that should he still try to pursue compensation and an apology from American Airlines, he should stick to the facts, leave emotion and name-calling out of his appeal, and be reasonable in his request.

We’ll place this in our Case Dismissed file and wish him an uninterrupted next trip to Mexico.

Michelle Bell

Michelle worked in the travel and hospitality industry for almost two decades. Born in Germany, she has lived in 15 states and two foreign countries, and traveled to more than 35 countries. After living and working in Southeast Asia for several years, she now resides in New Orleans. Read more of Michelle Bell's articles here.

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