What should we do about this adoption nightmare?

Jim and Debra Helgren set the wheels in motion to adopt not one, but five children from Latvia.

Then Aeroflot threw a wrench in the works.

Finalizing the adoptions required three trips to Latvia, the last of which was planned for December. Helgren’s wife booked 7 round-trip tickets on Aeroflot from Los Angeles to Riga, Latvia, for the entire family, at a cost of $6,200.

During the third trip, the five children left the U.S. with their original Latvian names and returned from Latvia on new Latvian passports with their new American names. The U.S. Embassy documentation that the family carried with them provided evidence of their official name changes.

As they say, the devil’s in the details.

Helgren says he had to purchase round trip tickets because at the time of booking, they didn’t yet have the children’s new passports, which were issued on the ground in Latvia the afternoon before their planned return to the United States. Aeroflot requires that passengers provide passport information at the time of booking.

Hours after their name changes were official, shortly after midnight, they arrived at the airport in Riga for their scheduled 2:20 a.m. departure for Los Angeles, with a stop in Moscow.

But there was one small problem. Rather, five small problems.

The Aeroflot agent told them they couldn’t check in because the names on their children’s new passports didn’t match the names on their reservations.

Aeroflot agents at the airport in Riga attempted to contact airline headquarters in Moscow, but given the time of day, were unable to reach anyone in a position to address the problem.

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Helgren phoned Aeroflot’s customer service number, which was similarly unable to accommodate his family’s special situation. In the course of his conversation with customer service, the flight departed, and the phone agent gave him additional bad news: Since his departure time had passed, his tickets were no longer valid.

Stuck in Latvia with five children and no valid tickets, Helgren saw only one solution: buy new tickets.

“We purchased new one-way tickets on Lufthansa,” explains Helgren, “and flew home via Frankfurt.”

Last minute international tickets come at a high cost. And in this case, the cost for the Helgren family was a staggering 19,000 euros, which Helgren put on two credit cards.

Helgren has asked us for our guidance in finding a way out of his predicament. Of course, we sympathize with Helgren, and want to support clearly big-hearted people trying to build a family.

International adoption is not an easy or inexpensive endeavor. The process can take years, requiring endless paperwork, background checks, home studies, parenting workshops, medical and financial statements, government applications, and — let’s face it — thousands of dollars.

But this kind of debt is not something these parents bargained for. They had already purchased round trip tickets, and Aeroflot refused to let them board.

But did Aeroflot do anything wrong? Its own contract of carriage explicitly states:

Tickets may not be transferred for use by other persons. Only the passenger whose name and identification document details match the data provided when booking the ticket shall be accepted for carriage. Tickets issued for flights of PJSC Aeroflot must always contain details of the passenger’s identification document.

But what about those “other persons”? While the children’s names changed, as authorized by U.S. and Latvian authorities, the Helgrens were not attempting to transfer tickets to others. They were trying to get home following an official name change — circumstances not anticipated by airline rules.

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And what about Lufthansa? Should the airline have charged the family their last minute, full fare, simply because that’s how airlines make money?

Some stories start out so right — then go so wrong — that our advocacy team feels compelled to make them right again.

This is one such story. But we don’t know yet if it will have a happy ending.

It remains to be seen whether either Aeroflot or Lufthansa will consider the human side of this story and listen to the pleas of a dad suddenly faced with unforeseen debt as he begins his new life with five children.

No matter what happens, we wish the Helgren family all the best as they embark on this next leg of their journey together.

Should we advocate for the Helgren family?

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Jessica Monsell

A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.

  • I am divided on this issue. When you adopt children from another country, as you stated they had to return to Latvia several times. During this preparation, one of the things they ‘should’ have checked is the passport situation.

    Now, I realize there are many things on a To Do list when adopting, regardless of the country, but some common sense dictates not booking a return flight so close to the issuing of the new passports.

    This is the catch for me. “which were issued on the ground in Latvia the afternoon before their planned return to the United States.”

    This may be a humanitarian idealist situation, but it is not the airlines’ responsibility to change their contract of carriage or offer discounts in light of poor reasoning.

  • Willliam Smith Jr

    Rules are rules as they say but this seems like a good a case as any where an exception should be made. Hopefully Aeroflot or Lufthansa shows a little compassion here.

  • Mel65

    Was it not possible for them to fly with their original names, as booked? And then if necessary change their names once on US soil? I’m confused by how the tickets were purchased to begin with or why the names weren’t left alone for travel purposes? Did they not know what name they were going to change them to? I’m very confused by the sequence of events. Having said that, by all means go to bat for them. Seems like they may have made some errors in judgment, but their hearts were in the right place and I think they honestly believed their paperwork was sufficient to fly…

  • Matt

    The fault is fairly distributed. Aeroflot failed when they didn’t allow boarding. BUT in their defense this is an extremely unusual situation, an official name change, including a new passport. Completely legit but very odd and something that a front line agent is ill prepared to deal with at 2:00 am. Question: was the documentation from the US Embassy in English? Potentially another complication.

    It sounds like a fair amount of fault is due the Helgren’s for not being more proactive. It is not clear what kinds of assurances they did ahead of time but showing up in the middle of the night with five name changes without any groundwork is a recipe for disaster. Also did they immediately buy new tickets? Why not stay an extra day(s) and try to work it out with the main Aeroflot office during regular working hours.

    Don’t see why Lufthansa should be on the hook/involved. The Helgren’s wanted a flight and Lufthansa quoted them a price. They weren’t forced to take it.

    My resolution, Aeroflot returns half the money $3100 for the flight (the return they didn’t use). Tough lesson but not sure what else could be done.

  • Noah Kimmel

    agree…seemed like one of those where any reasonable person would flag and say “yup, you are going to have a problem”.

    Still advocate as it isn’t an unreasonable situation, just unique, and one which policy likely doesn’t match a fair view of the situation

  • Travelnut

    Having some experience with international adoption, I wonder if their agency dropped the ball. A reputable agency should have known this could happen and made sure they were prepared.

  • James

    I would expect the original passports, with the original names, were returned to the Latvian government when new documents were issued.

    That said, I do not see how this is that much different than a “destination” wedding where one or both parties changes names. Not having been married, I am not certain when the name change is officially made — or when new documents are issued.

  • sirwired

    On Lufthansa: Well, FWIW, this is one of those inexplicable airline prices. If you book a one-way from Riga to LAX tomorrow, it’s $3,312. (No advance purchase fare is available; it’s $3,312 if you book it six months out.) BUT, if you book a last-minute round-trip (and just no-show for the “return”), the fare drops to under $1k. It would be REALLY nice if Lufthansa would at least drop their price to what they would have paid for booking a fake round-trip.

    On Aeroflot: They were presented with a group of passengers whose names did not match their reservations; this family got caught in the same situation that newlyweds do when they book tickets with the new married names, but without ID to back it up. (Only the reverse; they HAD ID’s with their new names, but reservations in the old names.) And it’s not just non-transferability rules; it’s not a trivial thing to change the manifest for an international itinerary at the last second…

    What the family SHOULD have done is called Aeroflot when making the reservations to find out what to do, since they knew that the children would have new passports for the return trip. The check-in counter was NOT the place to work this out. But when disaster did strike, I would have camped out in the airport waiting for customer service to wake up before coughing up 19kEUR for new tickets. Perhaps something could have been worked out; at worst, they would have had to pay for a hotel room to recuperate for a day.

    If I’m Aeroflot, and feeling generous, I MIGHT give a one-way refund, but those seats did indeed go off into the proverbial sunset without them, so it’s a judgement call.

  • Matt

    Any name changes resulting from a wedding would be done by the person seeking the change, i.e., it is not automatic. So folks with destination weddings don’t have to deal with this.

  • sirwired

    I don’t think that Aeroflot was wrong to deny boarding. I mean, picture yourself as a ticket clerk working the graveyard shift, and now you have a family show up at the counter whose passports not only have the wrong names, they aren’t even from the same country as the reservation.

    That’s not a situation I would expect a front-line clerk to be able to fix in the middle of the night. (If I’m running an airline, I wouldn’t WANT to authorize a front-line employee to do such a thing! It could be put to all sorts of nefarious ends.)

  • hereathome

    I agree that they should have waited for a name change. Why didn’t the adoption agency tell them that – I going to assume that the agency deals with overseas adoptions & should know the rules. Each country has different rules but adopting Romanian kids is common. I would try & contact others, see how they handled other overseas adoptions (both other agencies & people who adopted). Mom & Dad jumped the gun or weren’t told. I would have stuck around to fix this. My take is you’re going nowhere with the airlines – they don’t deal with ‘compassion’. God bless them for adopting 5 children.

  • hereathome

    The hang-up is Aeroflot clearly states its rules. I doubt you’ll have any luck with them.

  • NotThatBrooklynGuy

    Sounds like the only workaround was to lie to the airline. That might have been impossible as the old passports might have been confiscated or destroyed when the new ones were issued.

    I can’t really blame the airline employee too much. Even if the paperwork were all proper and legal, it would be a rare set of paperwork the employee may have never seen or even heard about before.

  • Bill___A

    I know it isn’t going to help the matter now, but this is very obviously something one needed to do some investigation about beforehand. Getting it dealt with at check in is asking the boarding gate agents something they would not know how to deal with.

    Why didn’t the children have American passports to travel there and back on, and then get their Latvian passports later on?

    Parents adopting usually collaborate and share stories so that they learn what to do.

    I”m not sure if this is Aeroflot’s fault or not. Who is supposed to come up with the money for this? Should Lufthansa give a discount because Aeroflot didn’t know how to deal with this?

    (note: I am somewhat familiar with this sort of thing, my sister and her husband did an overseas adoption. My new niece has fit into the family wonderfully.)

  • The rules are “proper identification”. It does not (nor should not) state passports. In this case there were additional documents from the US embassy to accompany the new passports. That is indeed “proper identification”.
    The only thing I might have done differently is phone Aeroflot with the new passport info and have it updated in the reservation.
    This situation isn’t much different than someone booking on an old passport, renewing their passport, and then updating the reservation with the new passport info.

  • Jeff W.

    I think you should advocate to help them out, but let us add the adoption agency into the mix. I am certain they received a fee and should have known better.

    Aeroflot has strict rules about IDs and a front line employee cannot deviate from that.
    Lufthansa (and all airlines) have high walk fares. That is normal and you cannot blame them.

    The family saw only one avenue, to book a high cost one-way fare out of there. Not that I blame them, but there were probably other options. Waiting until normal business hours to escalate it with the airline. Or even involving the embassy or consulate. But that is most likely easier said than done when you also have five children in tow.

    Good luck and hope you can get something back.

  • Rebecca

    That’s a great point. While most people would be completely unfamiliar with the situation, the agency collects thousands of dollars in fees and should have been very, very familiar with this circumstance. If the OP paid the agency, the buck should stop there.

  • Nathan Witt

    Does Aeroflot’s booking system have the capacity to accommodate passengers whose names change during travel at all? The way its rules are written, the OP didn’t violate the one that prohibits transferring tickets to another person. The OP also didn’t have a way to provide correct information for both legs, so I don’t see how they could have adhered to Aeroflot’s rules. From a little bit of Googling, it looks like ticket changes are possible on Aeroflot before departure for a fee, so I’m wondering if it wouldn’t have been cheaper than 19,000 Euros to pay the change fees to Aeroflot (which would have the side benefit of making it a little bit easier to work towards getting a refund from them). Of course, none of this is easy to research or work out for someone working from a foreign airport at midnight after being denied boarding. I think you should advocate for these people with Aeroflot. Lufthansa quoted them a price and got paid, and while asking for nearly $20k sounds like a lot, it WAS less than $3k per passenger for a walk-up international fare from Riga to Los Angeles, which is a lot, but not any more unexpected or extortionate than any other airline would be.

  • Candi Harmon Kruse

    I was thinking the same thing. Though I know quite a few folks who have went around their agencies to save money on their travel, and when they do that, they may lose out on that knowledge. There are several travel agencies that specialize in adoption airfares, so even if you wanted to skip your agency, there are options other than direct purchase through an airline with the services necessary.

  • LonnieC

    And a few answered “no”???

  • Since the passports were issued in the children’s’ new names while the trip was underway, this is clearly Aeroflot’s problem. They just seized a chance to get picky in a case where a passenger’s name changes in the middle of a trip.

    Usually this happens to honeymooners, but any airline should have a procedure covering adopted children also. I was hoping that Aeroflot had changed since I flew them back in Soviet days, but apparently not.

  • Altosk

    Yes advocate.

  • sirwired

    For international travel, the passengers that show up in the destination countries must be the passengers on the manifest; that includes the passengers having the correct names AND nationalities on them. It’s not a trivial change to make at the last second.

  • Ribit

    I think it is crummy deal. But I voted no because I propose it will be a waste of time. Lufthansa just sold people tickets at the walk-up fare. Lufthansa was not a party to the declined boarding. Aeroflot was following their, and probably, Russian security rules. I would be amazed if Aeroflot gave a millimeter on this dispute.

  • LonnieC

    Understood. ?

  • Not trivial, but in this case accompanied by the correct documentation. I think the airline would need 24 hours notice for their manifest. But again, they had all of their documents in order for their destination country. That’s what the airlines care about.

  • just me

    Adoption or not Aeroflot is the wrongdoer and there is little to nothing for their excuse. They should be sued in the USA for the full value of the Lufthansa tickets and all other damages. Their “Contract of Carriage” is not a contract until the judge rules.
    The person subject to contract did not change the name changed legally. It is not up to airline agents, HQ or anyone else to dispute the legal and documented name change.
    The free wheeling no nothing agents need to be removed from positions where they can do damage to people lives by their ignorance – this includes check-in agents and flight attendants. I am glad they cannot carry a gun – yet?
    As to LH pricing – again why would any other airline had to change their ways (as wrong headed as they really are) just because.

  • rgoltsch

    Not trying to be wet blanket at this party, but c’mon. The airline agent had a group of people arrive with ID’s that didn’t match their tickets. How could a front line agent be expected to make an exception like that? And what if the passengers were not allowed back into the US or whatever country was their next stop? Aeroflot would have been stuck paying for their ticket back to Latvia.

    The agent did his job. The airline probably would’ve canned his butt if he did anything different. He did his best by calling for assistance, but it was in the middle of the night.

    Lufthansa did what airlines do best, stick it to the people that can use a break…..but we all know that is how they work, so we shouldn’t be surprised at that. We don’t get mad at the lion for eating the gazelle, do we? It is in their nature to charge as much as they can.

    Now, the parents……they are doing a great thing, there is no doubt about this. However, they had to know that changing passports and names would throw a monkey wrench in the works. Why schedule a flight that same evening? Why not wait a day and try to settle these things in advance……before they show up with seven people at the airport? They didn’t. They might have been given poor advice from the adoption agency, or perhaps they had not traveled in the last 15 years by air. But one of the two parents had to have read a newspaper seeing all the stringent requirements for international travel.

    I’d say to advocate for them, but not because the airlines did anything wrong…..because they seem to be good people (Anyone that adopts five kids is alright in my book) that got stuck in an international documentation Neverland.

  • judyserienagy

    I also am confused about why the children had to travel back to Latvia if they were already in the U.S. By all means, advocate for them.

  • Annie M

    It doesn’t happen to honeymooners because until the spouse legally change their names on their passports or drivers licenses, their travel is booked in their maiden name.

  • Annie M

    That was exactly my thought. This must happen whenever there is a name change with an adoption and they can’t be the first people to undergo something like this.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Yeah… I was wondering about that too.

  • cahdot

    aeroflat is owned by LUFTHANSA ????? yes they could have helped with the outrageous fares!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • sirwired

    Destination countries care very much about the passengers on the manifest matching the ones that come off the plane. Johnnie Doe of Latvia is a completely different person vs. Johnnie Doe of the United States. I could totally see Russia sending Johnnie back to Latvia if he showed up in Moscow unexpectedly, visa or not.

    And if the destination country cares, then the airline cares, since they’ll be responsible for taking Johnnie on the next flight back.

  • BubbaJoe123

    No, there’s no connection between the two. More reading, fewer exclamation points.

  • Lindabator

    And if Stash is now Stanley, even MORE of a problem, as NONE of the names would have matched, and it becomes a safety issue as well – to ensure no one is trafficking children (it does happen, you know).

  • Lindabator

    ??? The names and passports did not match the flights they took out — the agent has NO authority to make major name changes at the airport 2:00 am — this family should have spoken to the adoption agency FIRST – would have been better advised as to what they would need to travel — and if she had bothered to contact Aeroflot PRIOR to the flight with that information, it might have been easier to remedy. The gate agent did nothing wrong, and these measures are in place to eliminate human trafficking problems.

  • sirwired

    Areoflot is majority-owned by the Russian Govt. I have no clue where you got the idea they were owned by Lufthansa.

  • just me

    NOT – airline does not need 24 hrs for the manifest – as the new tickets are sold practically until the checkin is closed.

  • just me

    sirwired – I always value your opinions, but… the familly showed up for checkin with passports and court orders telling that the Alexiej Smithskowitch is now Johnny Black. There was nothing else for the agent to do. American Boarder Control would take them under either name – so there was no risk for the airline. It was pure agent stupidity and lack of understanding of the rule of law. Not much regard for the rule of law in both Latvia or Russia anyway, so how poor agent would know. But Russians border control would do nothing because they did not cross Russina border in Moscow. They would remain on the airside or in the special transit area. In many airports, the world outside USA, has hotels on the airside (in the transit zone) so travelers do not need visas.
    This was pure inability of the airport employed agent to access proper information and screens on the contracting airline.
    Anyhow – the biggest error those victimized people did was to fly Aeroflot in the first place. I’d rather walk than fly Aeroflot and I talk based on knowledge not rumor or anti-anything sentiment.

  • just me

    LH price setters are old school and ungerman like they are totally irrational about it. But by now, after VW snafu – I guess we can start scrutinizing German thinking again. One way must be more expensive just because – no rational brain involved.

  • just me

    But Russia would not send Johnnie because Johnie is not crossing the Russina border in Moscow – he remains on the airside i.e the trainsit zone.

  • sirwired

    Russia is a country (like the US) that requires visas (if not traveling on a visa waiver) even if you are just transiting. US Johnnie is going back to Latvia because they were expecting Latvia Johnnie; it doesn’t matter if his final destination after he leaves Moscow is St Petersburg, the US, or Mars.

  • just me

    NOOOOOT – no problem.
    My wife passport has 4 element in the name. For past 40 years her airline tickets have 2 elements only one of them matching the passport exaclty. The remaining one element is not close enough as it is a nick name that has 30% of letters of the full passport first name. There was NEVER a problem for checkin agents abroad or in the USA to change or partially adjust the ticket name if security people insisted. But US agent are more disturbed by her state ID not having expiration date then by difference in her name. Only one time there was a problem – when the airline kept refusing to award miles because the name on the boarding pass was ever so slightly different from the name on the ticket because the security in one of airports abroad insisted and in the airline frequent flyer profile. USA boarder control never even blink – although one commented that automated system needs to be pushed by hand to match what the foreign checkin agents messed up by changing unnecessarily the name. And abroad, mostly in Europe, boarder agents told us that they see all the variants of names and all of passports people actually hold or held if they ever had a passport from civilized and some less so countries.
    So please – stop this madness discussion. They know who you are – unless you use illegal documents at which time the whole system fails.
    It was checkin agent’s created problem – period. The names were all legal and docments too.

  • sirwired

    Travelers DO need transit visas in Russia. (This is the case in many countries, including the US.) The State Dept. website tells you all about it.

    It’s very true that if it was a direct flight to the US, the US would not have sent him home. (Pretty sure that would be a treaty violation.) But since he was going through Russia, all the paperwork for the flight needs to be in order in order for the passenger not to be sent back to the embarkation country.

    “Not much regard for the rule of law in both Latvia or Russia anyway, so how poor agent would know.” I’m not sure what to make of that crack… just because these countries are poor, and have lousy governments doesn’t mean every employee and government functionary is stupid/ignorant of the law/going to ignore it.

  • just me

    @disqus_gndWpPJ2A3:disqus sirwired – not only Russia is not like the USA, but there is no single USA airport that I know that has any transit area for international through flights, and all international airplanes unload into border control area (with few exceptions if the border control was done before the flight: Ireland and Canada; or in Miami where is a big mess as it is run mostly by refugees from the island close by and they different concepts about life). Neither US nor Latvian Johnnie is seeing any border control agent — unless the flights come and leave from different airports or sometimes terminals that have no other connection than stateside. And often in Moscow the transit people are loaded into a bus waiting at the tarmac and moved to the departing airplane where they wait sometimes for hours for the boarding time. Anything goes there. No need for visa for most international flights except Belarus.

  • cahdot

    sorry confused them with germanwings!!!! its been a rough week!!!!

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