United booking errors cause student international runaround

By | November 5th, 2016

If only Michael Emmerling had held on to his passport. That thought must have occurred to him and to his economics professor, Russell McCullough, numerous times as they tried to navigate their way through an international travel quagmire.

Their story is a reminder to all international travelers that they need to retain their documents and have them ready at all times to verify their identities. Otherwise, they might not be leaving — or returning — home.

McCullough had arranged a student trip to India for himself, Emmerling, and two other students to Delhi on United Airlines through Expedia. Their return flights were booked on Air Canada via Toronto.

All three students gave their passports to McCullough so that he could apply for student visas for their travel to India. McCullough and the other two students would be coming from Kansas City, Mo., and Emmerling would be coming from Chicago. They intended to rendezvous at Newark, N.J., where they would catch their flight to Delhi. McCullough believed that he could give Emmerling his passport in Newark.

But because McCullough had Emmerling’s passport, United’s agent at Chicago’s Metropolitan Area Airport denied Emmerling a boarding pass for his Newark flight. She canceled his flight and did not offer any assistance to Emmerling, such as rebooking him on a domestic flight to Newark. Emmerling called McCullough, who was about to board his flight in Kansas City.

McCullough then spent two hours on the phone with agents of Expedia and United trying to resolve the situation. He finally decided to overnight mail Emmerling his passport and purchase him a nonstop one-way ticket on Air India the following day. McCullough specifically asked both Expedia’s agent and United’s agent whether Emmerling’s return booking on Air Canada would be affected, and both agents confirmed that the return booking would not be affected by the change in his flight to India. The group flew to India, and Emmerling joined them the following day.

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But when it was time to check in for their return flights, they found that there was still a travel snafu. Although McCullough and the other two students were able to check in online, Emmerling was not.

McCullough called Air Canada’s customer service, whose agent could not determine why Emmerling could not check in. The agent assured McCullough that Emmerling’s reservation was confirmed and he just needed a boarding pass, which he could obtain at the Air Canada desk at the Delhi airport.

The group went to the airport, where Emmerling checked in and received his boarding pass. Then they boarded their return flight to Toronto.

Although Emmerling’s connection to Chicago was tight, the gate agent told him and McCullough that United had not paid Air Canada for the flight to Chicago and that he should not have been allowed to board the flight to Toronto. She also told him and McCullough that they would have to talk to United’s customer service to resolve the matter.

Emmerling and McCullough went to the United customer service desk, but it was 6:15 a.m. No one was at United’s customer service desk. An Air Canada agent at that airline’s desk nearby told them that United’s customer service desk was routinely understaffed and suggested that they find a United gate agent, who in turn told them that they would have to call Expedia. After an hour, an Expedia agent booked Emmerling on a new flight to Chicago and McCullough rushed back to his own gate to board his return flight to Kansas City, which was scheduled to take off at 8:30 a.m.

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McCullough wanted a refund or flight credit from United of $1,200 for the costs of Emmerling’s canceled Chicago-Newark-Delhi flight and for the Toronto-to-Chicago flight for which United failed to pay Air Canada. He might have escalated his complaint to United, Air Canada, and Expedia by means of our company contacts, but he asked our advocates if we could help him get the compensation.

His situation is sticky, because United’s contract of carriage provides that:

Each Passenger desiring transportation across any international boundary is responsible for obtaining and presenting all necessary travel documents, which shall be in good condition, and for complying with the laws of each country flown from, through or into which he/she desires transportation.…

And let’s face it — he should have realized that Emmerling was going to need his passport at the beginning of the trip, even though the Chicago-to-Newark leg of his trip was strictly within the U.S.

So although he and Emmerling were greatly inconvenienced by United’s preventing Emmerling from boarding his flight to Newark, United’s cancellation of Emmerling’s flight was consistent with this provision.

But when Air Canada’s and Expedia’s agents confirmed to McCullough that Emmerling’s Toronto-to-Chicago reservation was still valid, Emmerling should have been allowed to board the flight. Air Canada’s gate agent’s refusal to allow Emmerling to board the flight, sending him and McCullough back to United to rebook his flight to Chicago, was poor customer service.

Our advocates reached out to Expedia on McCullough’s behalf, and McCullough has been issued a full refund of the extra costs of both tickets.

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  • Alan Gore

    Why would United require a passport for a Chicago-Newark leg? New Jersey is a diverse place, but last time I checked it was still a state. Or did his driver license name not match his ticket and passport name?

  • Kristiana Lee

    I fly to Australia a lot and I’ve always been required to present my passport in Seattle even though the first leg is Seattle-LA or Seattle-Honolulu. I’m sure the airline is legally required to make sure everyone has proper documents to get where they’re going but I think it’s a good policy in another way. If I have passport issues, I can solve that problem much more easily in my hometown than wherever I’m connecting through.

  • Jeff W.

    I am going to have to agree with Kristiana’s comment. Time to determine that one has all of the proper documentation is at the beginning of the trip, not during the middle.

    If, for whatever reason, the rest of the party coming from KC did not make it on time, then we would have a whole different set of complications. Emmerling would tried to board the flight in Newark without his passport, which cannot obviously happen. Then he would have been a no-show. And we would have a different case here.

  • fs2013

    I’m trying to figure out the relationship between the headline and the article. How is this situation a “United booking error?”

    This was passenger error from the beginning. I’m a pretty savvy flier and don’t use a travel agent, but this group obviously could have benefited from the assistance of a travel professional. Time and again we see passengers using OTA for itineraries that are too complex for the particular parties to handle on their own. A flesh and blood TA would have facilitated the visas and verified that the passengers knew the rules on providing travel docs at the point of departure.

  • Alan Gore

    Sure, United would by default check passports at the departure city for an international trip, but are they legally allowed to prevent a pax from flying an initial domestic leg when he explains he is going to pick up his passport and Indian visa for the international departure? If he can’t present at EWR departure with the valid documentation when the airline would have the legal obligation to be certain the pax has a visa, then that’s on him.

  • Alan Gore

    The screwups were detailed in the article on the return trip.

  • SierraRose 49

    I asked that question the first time we flew overseas — Tucson to Atlanta; then we changed planes in Atlanta to Rome. The ticket agent who checked our bags said she needed to verify our passports were valid because our luggage was being checked all the way from Tucson to Rome. If our passports were not valid, we would not be able to board the flight to Atlanta and neither would our luggage. The gate agents in Atlanta also re-checked our passports. And then they were checked again when we landed in Rome. If Italian officials had found our passports were not valid and prevented us from entering the country, it is the responsibility of the airline to fly us back to the U.S. ASAP.

  • fs2013

    None of which would have occurred had the passenger not arrived at departure lacking the necessary documents to travel.

  • Mel65

    Anytime I fly overseas, my passport is checked in at the originating airport when I get my boarding passes and check my luggage. I can only imagine the issues if he’d been checked inn and then NOT had his passport for his international flight… Unless the professor had never flown internationally before, he should have known that and ensured he got the passport back to him.

  • PsyGuy

    Because a portion of his itinerary included an overseas destination. When I fly and I check in at the departing airport for the first segment of my journey, I pick up all my boarding passes for the flights, and my travel documents are verified. If that didn’t happen, then the scenario exists that in making a connecting flight at the international departure point I would have to obtain a boarding pass at that airport (and I’ve done that, flown to LAX, and waited for an info update, and purchase a ticket while waiting in the concourse), and if I don’t have my passport or other travel document then the PAX is stuck midway through an itinerary. Then the complaints and issues are greater than if the counter agent refuses the PAX in the first place.

  • PsyGuy

    I agree, this scenario would have potentially been expensive for the airline.

  • PsyGuy

    Yes, they legally are because there is no such thing as a mixed domestic and international itinerary. It’s either all domestic or it’s international. they could have resolved this by booking separate itineraries. A domestic itinerary to their international departure and then an international departure from there onward.

  • PsyGuy

    This scenario would have been prevented had the PAX asked the airline what documents were necessary at their point of departure.

  • sirwired

    The most-extensive doc checks are done at the ticket counter at the very beginning of your itinerary. The ones done at the gate are just to make sure you haven’t dropped your passport and/or visa mid-journey. I’m not even sure if the gate agents are setup for full TIMATIC checks, of if there’s any way for the ticket agent to tell an eventual gate agent to do a full doc check. (And that’s if there’s any sort of doc check at the gate at all, there often isn’t.)

    They want to prevent situations like:
    – Your bags going on to a foreign country without you, which might make it difficult to get them back.
    – You flying across the country only to discover that you can’t actually go. (The passenger will now have to cancel their trip, and purchase a walk-up one-way ticket back home; ouch.)

  • Michael__K

    If you print your boarding pass at home and don’t check any luggage, who is checking your passport before the gate agent?

    We know it’s possible for bags to be checked only part-way through the itinerary, because we’ve seen it happen. We know it’s possible for boarding passes to be issued for only part-way through the itinerary, because we’ve seen that happen.

    If the passenger printed their full set of boarding passes before arriving at the airport, I could see that being more complicated but I’d be surprised if there isn’t some way to revoke the boarding passes for the international segments but not the initial leg.

  • Michael__K

    A flesh and blood TA would have facilitated the visas

    A flesh and blood TA could have facilitated tourist visas, which would have been useless for these passengers. They needed STUDENT visas, which have different requirements, including documentation from a recognized Indian educational institution. Which I doubt most flesh and blood TAs are experienced in or interested in facilitating.

  • Michael__K

    This is two wrongs make a right thinking….

    Besides the fact that those of us who know that the passport is required at the start of the domestic journey know this from prior personal experience, not from anything that is clearly explained in writing somewhere.

  • prashant

    every different agents at united have different talk on same issue. one yes doesnt mean yes to others . customers services wih most corporation is at worst now.

  • sirwired

    I traveled internationally on AA a few months ago (to the UK), and while I could check-in online, boarding pass printing was not available.

    And when have we seen bags only checked part-way?

  • El Dorado Hills

    When we fly from Sacramento to VIctoria, BC, Canada with a plane change in Seattle we need to show our passports before boarding at SFM I can check in from home but can not print boarding passes.

  • Michael__K

    Sometimes I’ve been able to print boarding passes at home for an international trip, and sometimes not. I’m not sure what the rhyme or reason is. Maybe it depends on the airline. I don’t have any recent experience traveling international on United so I’m not sure what they do.

    Here’s one example of a bag not checked-through (I can look for more if you’d like):

    A friend of mine travels to India frequently and when he connects through certain airports (as I recall at least LHR, maybe others), he asks to have his bag checked only part-way and he manually collects the bag the bag and manually re-checks it himself. The agents ticket his baggage according to his request and he’s had better luck arriving in India with his luggage that way.

  • cscasi

    Perhaps TSA would check your passport before the gate agent – especially if you present a boarding pass that shows an international destination? I doubt your drivers license would get you through that initial check (assuming you checked no bags and did not check in at the ticket counter).

  • cscasi

    That’s true – according to information shown for Heathrow (LHR). But, doing so slows the passenger down as he then has to go through customs with his baggage and then recheck it; whereas if it is checked all the way through, he does not see it until he reaches, in your case, the airport in India, where he and his baggage will have to go through customs.

  • Michael__K

    You would show TSA your ORD->EWR boarding pass and your local drivers license / state ID.

  • Mark

    Not sure where you get the need for a student visa from the article. If they are, for example, history students visiting historical sites in India, then a tourist visa would be fine…

  • Mark

    Or the airline could have made this clear to the PAX upfront.

    If there are critical actions that the passenger must take in order for their ticket to be valid, then the airline should err on the side of over communicating, rather than assuming that the passenger will go out of their way to find out.

  • Michael__K

    From the article:

    All three students gave their passports to McCullough so that he could apply for student visas for their travel to India.

  • Lindabator

    because it was a connecting flight to India, so he HAS to show a passport for international travel – which he did not have

  • Lindabator

    yes – because then he has a boarding pass in hand, luggage checked thru – and NO guarantee he will have the passport required upon arrival into NYC

  • Lindabator

    you still have to go to the desk, as you can check in, but NOT print a boarding pass until passport/visa has been verified by the airlines

  • Lindabator

    which can still be done — and there is a Chicago office, so he would probably have been better off doing it himself

  • Michael__K

    No, you absolutely CAN print a boarding pass at home for international travel, at least sometimes. I just checked to make sure I wasn’t crazy and found my boarding pass for a past international trip which I generated 24 hours before departure and emailed to my wife to print out.

  • jsn55

    Well, cool, a refund. Good work! UA should have booked him on a domestic flight to EWR. You can’t begin an international trip without a passport. They probably would have … well, maybe … had the tix not been booked through an OTA. Travellers need to get off this “buy the cheapest” and book direct with airlines and hotels. The push against OTAs will only get worse.

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