The seatback pocket is not the place for your passport


Frank Fantasia plans the perfect vacation to Portugal with family and friends. They land in Lisbon as scheduled and disembark. When they arrive at Portuguese Immigration, Fantasia realizes he left his passport on the plane in the seatback pocket. Portuguese officials not only detain him, but deport him back to Boston. Will our advocates fight for his compensation?

Question: I arrived in Lisbon on TAP Portugal on June 5. I left my passport on the plane and was not allowed to return to the gate to retrieve it. As a result I was detained by Portuguese immigration, separated from my wife.

I was detained for 24 hours and put on a plane back to Boston. I had to purchase a new passport in Boston for $195 so that I could book a return flight to Lisbon the same day. That flight cost $2,900. Can you help me get TAP to pay? — Frank Fantasia, Winchester, Mass.

Answer: How devastating it must have been to be in a foreign country, separated from your wife and friends, held in a detention facility and deported back to the U.S. I’m truly sorry this happened to you.

When you realized your mistake, you turned around and attempted to persuade the TAP agent to allow you back on the plane. You were refused entry at the gate. You had no choice but to proceed to Immigration in Portugal. Having no passport, you were detained until the next flight out of Lisbon to Boston. The original return portion of your ticket was used to return you to Boston.

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In order to return to your wife and your vacation, upon your arrival in Boston, you purchased a same-day return ticket to Lisbon on a different airline and paid an expedited fee to have a new passport issued.

First, you’re not alone. It’s widely reported that 300,000 Americans lose their passports or have them stolen every year.

Back in 2013, our own Christopher Elliott filed a video report for USA Today about what to do if you lose your passport, and he reiterated the same information in a more recent article last year.

You wrote to TAP Portugal customer service and explained the situation to them. You requested to “speak with a senior member of the TAP staff to further discuss this situation.”


The initial response from a customer service representative concluded there wasn’t much to be discussed.

Upon realizing you had lost your passport you would not be allowed back on board due to security reasons, this is not an airline policy but an aviation regulation and regulations imposed by the governing bodies at the airport of arrival.

Certainly without a passport you are unable to enter any international destination and are exposed to the consequences implemented by the government authorities of that country. The airline unfortunately, cannot control the policies and regulations of the governing bodies the dictate the regulations to enter a foreign country.

As you requested, however, the representative sent your email to a manager for further review. Their conclusion was the same. “We thank you for your patience while we were reviewing the above mentioned claim that deserved our utmost attention. I do understand your predicament and the extreme inconvenience caused by the fact that you forgot your passport on board.”

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Your correspondence to our advocates and to TAP never indicated why you put your passport in your seatback pocket. Perhaps you needed it to fill out the Portuguese immigration form. Perhaps it had been there the entire flight.

You perceived the situation this way when you posted to our forums.

Due to TAP’s unwillingness to assist me with a simple request to return to the plane to retrieve my passport which was left in the pouch on the seat back in front of me I experienced a most difficult emotional time, was separated from my wife and travel companions and incurred much additional expense.

Our forum advocates’ responses were virtually the same as the airline’s.

Unfortunately for you, this is a case where you cannot and should not hold anyone but yourself responsible for the consequences of your actions. If Portuguese security regulations wouldn’t allow you to reboard the aircraft, that’s not TAP’s fault.

You further believe the airline should compensate you for not allowing you to reboard an international aircraft that was secured at the gate. Unfortunately, your mistake caused this problem and, I’m sorry, we can’t help you.


Chip Hiebler

Chip enjoyed a successful career in the IT field. Now he’s retired and splits his time between experiencing destinations and cultures beyond his home in Baltimore and generally having fun. He currently supports the mission of Elliott.org as the co-director of the research department.

  • DChamp56

    Yes, I understand he shouldn’t have put his passport there, and while all the above is true, how hard would it have been for someone to call the gate, ask to check his seatback for the passport?
    Why is doing the right thing so difficult?

  • PsyGuy

    Yet another LW who can’t take responsibility for their own action and ineptitude. Is being a “special snowflake” contagious?

  • Daddydo

    We are Americans. We have no use for a passport until it is needed for travel. Most people in other countries have passports at birth. We travel US State to State needing nothing more than a driver’s license. Europeans, Asians, etc. travel country to country. At this point in history, we advise our clients to treat a US Passport like they would gold. Money can be lost, jewelry replaced, but not having your passport is a major issue. Security over-rides common sense in the travel world. TAP was absolutely correct.

  • vmacd

    Why couldn’t the wife go back to retrieve the passport? Seems as though she had hers.

  • Jeff W.

    The story leaves out a few important details that would support this.

    * We don’t know how long of time expired.
    * Not being familiar with Libson airport, some gates for international flights are configured as such so that arriving passengers exit through one set of doors/corridors to guide them directly to immigration, and another set of doors are for departing passengers.

    But it sounds as if airport regulations prevented the airport personnel from reboarding the plane.

  • Lindabator

    The aircraft is secured, and once you enter the passport control area, there IS no going back, period – regardless of who you are, or what documents you have on you

  • Lindabator

    These gates are not manned as a standard gate, as they ar in a secured area – and once the airport closed the aircraft, only certain personnel can even re-board it

  • Kerr

    The story he said went back to the gate but wasn’t allowed back on the plane. Why not just wait at the gate for the either the flight crew or the cleaning crew? A gate agent could have easily called the flight crew and told them a passenger left something on the plane. Asking the cleaning crew (before they board) would have been another option.

  • Dutchess

    I understand what they COULD do… but how did Fantasia make it all the way through the immigration line and to the immigration desk without making sure he had his passport IN HAND? I check my passport like a dozen times if it’s not in my hand. Unless he was the absolute first person off the plane, and there was nobody else in line at immigration (an absurd supposition) then had Fantasia been the least bit responsible he could have made it back to the gate and asked for someone still on the plane to get his passport.
    Sounds like those people who stand in line at a restaurant and then starts deciding what to order when they get to the register! No sympathy!

  • Mark

    Very surprised and disappointed at how TAP handled this – literally this week I saw member of BA gate staff in Geneva returning to a plane to retrieve a passenger’s passport, that presumably had also been left in a seat-back pocket.

    The walk from gate to immigration at Lisbon is less than 10 minutes, so I find it very hard to believe that it would have been unreasonably long before Fantasia raised it with TAP ground staff.

    Whilst a passenger certainly can’t return to a plane – and arriving passengers are separated from departing passengers at LIS, I don’t think it’s beyond the realms of impossibility for (for example) ground staff to radio through and get someone to return the passport – there will be staff on the plane preparing it for the next flight, and there will be staff authorised to move between the plane and airside arrivals / departures areas.

  • Michael__K

    The personnel who were authorized on board and who were cleaning the aircraft should have found the passport….

  • Michael__K

    Obviously certain airline employees and/or contractors must have been allowed on board, and TAP should have alerted them to find the passport and advised the passenger to wait in the meantime.

  • Bill___A

    I agree that TAP could have been more helpful, sending airline staff to look for the passport, they would know which seat. However, the passenger is the one who caused the problem and therefore is not entitled to compensation. However, I would think twice about buying a ticket on such an unhelpful airline such as TAP seemed to be in this case.

  • Mark

    Yep, I definitely don’t think TAP have a liability here. It does, however, show exceptionally poor form from the airline.

    Their response is especially disappointing, but I guess they don’t want to accept liability.

    I can only wonder whether or not Fantastia was abrupt / rude with ground staff, which made them less inclined to help him?

  • Jeff W.

    It is possible, but every airport and every country is different.

    Not that O’Hare is a direct comparison, but many a time I have been stuck in terminal 1 waiting for hours for my plane to arrive from the international terminal (T5). The plane lands. Passengers disembark. TSA / CBP boards and does its security sweep. Then someone tows the plane from T5 to T1. Once it is in T1, the cleaning crew comes on to do its thing and then the new crew does its checks and then we can board.

    Not the most efficient process and is just an example. But international travel has its quirks and when a plane comes in from another country, there are very strict rules as to who can renter a plane.

  • Alan Gore

    What galls me is the plethora of cases in which a traveler gets off a flight and, seeing the customs-and-immigration lines up ahead, immediately realizes he left his passport at his seat and then vainly tries to contact someone to retrieve it. Since at that moment the plane still has crew on board, how much trouble can it be to go to seat 37B on the way out and grab the passport to save the day? The crew, and after that the cleaning crew, is in the process of leaving the plane anyway, and could easily bring such an item to a gate to be reunited with the passenger. But no – we keep being lectured to about how impossible it is to provide that little tiny courtesy.

    If it were hours later when the flight has already been turned around and may be already on its way somewhere else, a forgotten passport legitimately becomes a lost and found problem, but any airline that can’t be bothered to take a small step to save the ruination of a passenger’s entire trip is engaging in a money grab.

  • DChamp56

    Airline, not airport.

  • DChamp56

    I don’t equate “gate” with “plane”. The way it reads to me, he was far from the plane at that point.

  • MarkKelling

    Planes used on international flights sometimes have hours where they sit empty — no flight crew, no gate agent. Cleaning crews usually enter from the tarmac not inside the terminal. The arriving flight crew disappears as soon as the last passenger leaves the plane as does the gate agent.

  • DChamp56

    “When they arrive at Portuguese Immigration, Fantasia realizes he left his passport on the plane in the seatback pocket.” Sounds to me like he couldn’t get back to the gate because he’s already past the one way exit.

  • Kerr

    According to the author: “When you realized your mistake, you turned around and attempted to persuade the TAP agent to allow you back on the plane. You were refused entry at the gate.”

  • Kerr

    As stated by the author: “When you realized your mistake, you turned around and attempted to persuade the TAP agent to allow you back on the plane. You were refused entry at the gate.”

  • Michael__K

    Even if the plane is moved, they should still find the passport and be able to re-unite the passenger with it.
    Also, besides the point, but I question whether these “strict rules as to who can re-enter a plane” exist. Anyone in the secure air-side part of the airport already either has special badges/clearances to be there or they have the documentation to clear customs/immigration the standard way.

  • Michael__K

    One of the oft-cited explanations for airlines turning away passengers with questionable documentation is that the airline gets fined thousands of dollars if the passenger is rejected at immigration and deported for lack of travel documents.
    If that were truly and generally the case, then why wasn’t TAP bending over backwards to re-unite this passenger with his passport to avoid thousands of dollars in fines?

  • polexia_rogue

    When i was 15 I was on a flight from Hong Kong to Taiwan. I left my journal on the plane,

    I was with my sister and grandma and out final leg of Taiwan to San Francisco did not leave for a few hours so she told me to ask if i could get back on the plane. The Gate agent said yes.

    I remember how shocked out the cleaning crew was, but i got back my journal.

  • Mel65

    Like a lot of people here I totally think this was definitely the OP’s fault– his responsibility–his goof up–no questions asked. However, if there was someone at the gate to turn him away there was someone at the gate who could’ve picked up the phone and called to see if there was anybody on board who could look in the seat back of seat 32A, or whatever and bring out his passport. It does seem like there was no effort at all made to help him and that bothers me.

  • Andrew

    I’m confused. A passport isn’t a random object whose owner is hard to identify and which its owner may have intended to discard. Its owner is clearly identified and probably needs it to get out of the airport.

    So why isn’t it standard operating procedure for Immigration to instruct anyone who left a passport on the plane to simply wait, and for the cleaning crew, upon finding a passport, to turn it into Immigration, where it will be reunited with its owner? Even if that whole process takes hours, even if there’s no way to short-circuit it by asking someone to take a special look before the cleaning crew boards, it’s still better than what happened to Fantasia.

    Given how uncomfortable flights are, even if he didn’t specifically need his passport, he may have simply emptied his pockets so that he could sit more comfortably. This is an easy mistake to make and an easy mistake to solve.

    This wouldn’t solve this problem for everyone – for instance, if the aircraft continued on to another destination without being cleaned, or if the traveler had a connection that didn’t require passport control – but I think it would solve it in most cases.

  • Alan Gore

    Back in the good old days of aviation, which corresponded to the bad old days of technology, I had to take along a heavy stack of books and magazines for my inflight reading, there being no handy little device that would hold a library of reading. On a long flight I could finish several magazines, and if they were of general interest I would always leave my used copies in the seatback pocket for other passengers to enjoy.

    On several occasions after I got off one of these flights, an FA pursued me into the terminal with my abandoned magazines, thinking I had just neglected to take them. I never had the heart to tell them otherwise, and was always impressed by the display of courtesy. So clearly there is no real reason why forgotten passports cannot be returned this way, other than the bean counters issuing another nasty “policy” that gratuitously costs travelers a pile of money.

  • James Dworak

    Agree 1000%

  • James Dworak

    Send the wife back! Obviously as soon as you said you had no passport they were ” johnny on the sport” to expedite him back out of the country.

  • taxed2themax

    In some cases the fine imposed on the carrier is mitigated based on how customs see the carriers actions.. By that I mean, a full-boat fine might be applied if the carrier checked TIMATIC and still allowed the passenger to board/fly without having the necessary documents at the point of origin….. by contrast, it might be that a fine is mitigated down or even away, if the carrier checked and someone met the requirements at time of boarding/origin, >but< prior to arrival clearance, something went missing (like a passport). While the carrier still has a liability, one can argue that the carrier *accepted* him/her with the right paperwork, but due to events outside of the carriers control, at arrival, there was something missing..

  • taxed2themax

    I agree that the appears to be wholly the OP’s direct fault… and I also agree, that I *think* it was or would have been possible for the carrier to do more… but… the carrier failing to do more – whatever that may or may not have been in reality (which to be fair, it’s factually known), then does not (for me) translate into any viable claim for any kind of compensation from the carrier..

  • joycexyz

    Well, in these bad new days of aviation it’s all about efficiency and quick turnaround. I doubt the FA’s say on the plane long enough to check seatback pockets.

  • joycexyz

    IMHO, it all depends on your attitude. Did he make a reasonable request, or was he officious and demanding? A little humility and mea culpa go a long way.

  • joycexyz

    I think the answer may lie in your last sentence.

  • Michael__K

    When/why would a carrier ever admit they didn’t check TIMATIC and how would authorities ever be able to verify the carrier’s representations one way or the other?
    Besides which, TIMATIC is a private software package which is not officially recognized and sometimes gives ambiguous conditional responses and also does not allow enough inputs to account for various passenger circumstances (e.g. multi-nationals).

  • taxed2themax

    For some carriers it’s “baked” right into their check-in software process and to by-pass it requires someone whose log-on has the right level of authorization.

    Yes, TIMATIC is a private, non-governmental application — true.. but it IS still the industry standard resource, and one that most carriers use to determine travel eligibility… .. Also, true, it does NOT allow for every single possible passenger documentation/travel scenario, but again, it is the standard as it does cover the overwhelming percentage of passenger documentation/travel situations.

    As to your argument of why would a carrier “admit” to not checking… if a fine was something that was being debated, one thing that could be looked at or requested by customs, is the carriers check-in records, which, for many carriers would show who/where the doc was done and via what process, as well as any exceptions that were made and if so, what/whose authorization was applied. Also many carriers systems don’t allow for a complete deletion of data entries except by folks in the IT or similar HQ-level departments and commonly not at the local level — often a “key log” is left behind, so that a record that was modified can be viewed pre-modification basis to see what was there before..

    TIMATIC is not the end-all-be-it-all, but I think to be fair, it is the single best resource out there, and one that is generally regarded as the “go to” for eligibility

  • Michael__K

    It’s lazy and corrosive to assume that only people with a bad attitude are treated badly.
    And what are you suggesting precisely? That it would be justified for the employees who should have eventually found the passport to not make every effort to return it to its owner if they didn’t like his attitude?

  • Bob Davis

    In a setback pocket? Any time I have ever travelled internationally my passport lived in the front pocket of my pants. I never let it leave my person.

  • Michael__K

    If the check-in process is as rigid and inflexible as you suggest, then the whole premise of your previous comment is moot, and carriers should never be fined because of course they couldn’t have checked-in the passenger without TIMATIC…

    Regardless, I seriously doubt that the government of Portugal is going to study the carrier’s check-in records and audit that those records are controlled the way you or the carrier claim they are. And even if they did, the records will only show what a human being entered, and if you read this blog you know that the human beings who check in passengers are capable of egregious errors.

  • The Original Joe S

    Because some brainless duckwit moron made up the rule, and it’s set in stone. Common sense is not common.

  • The Original Joe S

    but nobody bothered to help.

  • The Original Joe S

    because customer service is not…..

  • The Original Joe S

    Don’t you mean HIS own action? Singular. “THEIR” is plural, or, in some cases, pleural…… And no, pleurisy is NOT “DOUBLE PNEMONIA”.

  • The Original Joe S

    Why didn’t TAP go on the airplane and get his passport?

    Don’t fly TAP…….

  • The Original Joe S

    So, what about the serfs who service the plane? Can’t one of those get the passport out of the pocket, as they are supposed to be cleaning up the airplane? Portugal – avoid.

  • The Original Joe S

    When you assume……..

  • The Original Joe S

    If he didn’t have a passport, then how did they put him on a plane to Boston without one?

  • The Original Joe S

    but they are still lazy, stupid, uncaring lizards……

  • The Original Joe S

    Shirt pocket. Big pockets.

    You got pockets which are set back from the main pockets? Ha hahahahahaha!

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    One thing that I do is to fill out the custom paperwork before the plane lands…since most custom paperwork requires your passport #, it is hard to leave your passport on the plane.

    Seven years ago, we were making a connection in Seoul on Asiana…we were flying Business Class (I don’t know if that made the difference in our situation) and my wife left a small camera in our seats. We realized that we left the camera when we got to the Asiana airport lounge…by the time, we got to the desk in the lounge to report that we left our camera behind, there was a message waiting for us that we left our camera and they moved our camera to our next flight…when we got to our seats, my wife’s camera was sitting on her seat.

  • gpx21dlr

    Duh! “What, this silly booklet is not important. I’ll just put it in the seat pocket until I deplane”. What a jerk! I do not apologize for the name calling.

  • pauletteb

    Yet another case of failure to accept personal responsibility for doing something stupid.

  • Byron Cooper

    My wife and I have lost iPads in the front seat pockets. Fortunately we had the insurance through AT&T. I no longer put anything in the seat pockets. I realized I lost my iPad even before I went though security so they let me back on the plane. 5 minutes was all it took and no more iPad.

  • joycexyz

    Lazy and corrosive? Rather harsh. The employees’ actions my not have been justified, but they are realistic. People react to how they are treated. This is a lesson we learn over and over again on this site and in the forums. Apparently, he insisted on being allowed to go back to retrieve the passport–an action that may have been against the rules, depending on where he was at the time. Perhaps if he had pleaded for help and let the employees figure it out, he would have been successful. It’s all about who has the power.

  • Michael__K

    It’s rather harsh (and lazy) to make assumptions that everyone treated poorly must have acted poorly and “deserved” it, especially when (a) you assert as fact what is contradicted by the linked forum thread and (b) I’m pretty certain we’ve all seen polite respectful people treated badly by those with power (as well as not-so-polite people treated well).

  • jah6

    It was his dumb fault. I am 72 and have had a passport since I was 18. I have travelled the globe in the intervening years and have NEVER even put my passport in the seat pocket on a plane, let alone left it there.

  • LonnieC

    Just what I was thinking.

  • LonnieC

    Actually, although it hurts my ears, “their” is now considered correct as a singular. This is from Merriam Webster:
    “Full Definition: “…. 2 : his or her : his, her, its — used with an indefinite third person singular antecedent <anyone in their senses…."
    Ouch!

  • LonnieC

    I agree. I can’t imagine Southwest being so unhelpful.

  • The Original Joe S

    If it ain’t in in the Oxford Dictionary of Ænglish, I don’t hold with it.

    It’s considered correct by politically-correct twinkle-toed communist cork-soaker control-freaks, but not by normal people….. I went to Communist Martyrs University where the dirtbags always said “HE OR SHE”, when “he” implies both due to the evolution of the language. I purposely used “HE” to annoy them. They’d correct me. I’d say, “No, ‘HE’, and stop interrupting me, because I don’t hold with your stupidity.”

  • RightNow9435

    That is why is actually was TAP’s fault. They should have checked the plane for his passport instead of doing the usual airline”not our problem” thing.

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