Can this trip be saved? Icelandair’s ESTA snafu strands 18-year-old in UK

Note: I’m starting a new series called “Can this trip be saved?” where you get to vote on whether I mediate a case. Here’s the first installment.

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Carrie LaMarr is steamed at Icelandair. Because of a misunderstanding over her son’s visa requirements, he was denied boarding on a flight this summer. He had to stay in Europe two extra days and pay another $905 to fly home.

LaMarr says the mix-up is Icelandair’s fault. Icelandair says it isn’t to blame.

Who’s right? I’ll let each side speak for itself and then tell you why I need your help in deciding what to do next.

Let’s begin with LaMarr:

Our 18-year-old son, Alex, arrived at check in at Glasgow airport for his flight to Seattle on July 17th with Icelandair some three hours before departure.

Alex presented his online ticket and British passport to the handling agent. Alex also had his Green Card with him, which was taped inside his passport.

The handling agent asked Alex whether he had completed the ESTA program paperwork, to which Alex replied no he had not. [ESTA is the US Visa waiver program.]

The agent told him that he would not be able to travel unless ESTA paperwork had been completed.

Alex asked whether he could complete the form and she informed him no, that such paperwork needed to be completed 72 hours before departure.

Alex told the agent that he thought that was strange as he lived in the USA and was a Permanent Resident and did not think he would have to do this.

The agent told Alex that only US citizens were not required to complete the ESTA paperwork and did not ask for any other documentation

Alex, not familiar with the new ESTA travel system since he last traveled to the UK (Aug 2008) had no choice but to believe her. His father, also present at the desk, stressed that Alex in fact lived in the USA and was returning for an important surgery on July 22nd and it was vitally important he return home to Seattle. The agent merely told Alex to phone Icelandair to see what could be done and then moved on to the next passenger.

LaMarr says the agent was mistaken, and had she bothered to read the ESTO requirements, would have seen that her son didn’t require a visa waiver, since he was a permanent resident. She complained to Icelandair, asking for a refund. Here’s the response from the agent:

The passenger was travelling on the FI436 then he was travelling on to the United States. When I was going to check the passenger in the computer asked if the passenger had completed an ESTA form online or if the passenger had a visa or any other documentation.

So I then asked the passenger if he had completed an ESTA form or had a visa. Pax Gray replied no to the visa and asked what an esta form was. I then showed him his confirmation as it said on the top of it that he had to complete and ESTA form at least 72 hours before travelling.

Pax Gray stated he never done this, so I advised him that as this was not done he wouldn’t be able to travel and that he would need to contact Icelandair or our ticket desk to see what they would be able to do with his ticket. Pax stated that he was a British citizen and that he held a British passport which he showed to me.

At no point did he show me a green card. Pax Gray never mentioned being a US resident or having possession of a green card. Obviously if he had done so I would have checked him in with no issue. Pax Gray went on his way to the ticket desk, he accepted the information I had given him, and was very pleasant.

LaMarr said both her son and her husband, who was present at check-in, dipute that account. They say they were never asked about his residence status or for a Green Card.

“We believe the handling agent was responsible for our son being denied boarding when he was in receipt of the correct documentation, though she did not ask for it,” she says.

Why I’m on the fence. Proper documentation is the traveler’s responsibility. The requirements are clearly spelled out on the US government’s site. Had he shown the Icelandair representative a Green Card and pointed to the chapter and verse of the ESTA rules that said he could travel, he would have been allowed on a plane. Icelandair is also well within its rights to charge for a seat on the plane two days later.

Still, it isn’t unrealistic to expect an Icelandair agent working in the UK to be aware of the new ESTA requirements. She should have asked Alex a few more questions in an effort to ensure he could get a seat on his original flight, and to make it to his doctor’s appointment.

What do you think? Should I ask Icelandair to refund the money? Or is this an expensive lesson learned for LaMarr?

Here are the results of the poll, which ran from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Aug. 16, 2010.

That’s 74 percent yes, 26 percent no. The poll had 723 responses. I’ve contacted Icelandair on behalf of LaMarr.

Update (Aug. 18): I contacted Icelandair. LaMarr received the following response:

Thank you for our telephone conversation yesterday. I hope this message finds you well. As promised, I went over the issue in more detail. I feel that the issue has been handled well by our Icelandair employees so far. However, as the matter was originally handled by our handling agent, we cannot be assured of all details.

Because of this, you were offered a 50% refund on the airfare and a full refund on the change fee, excluding the fare difference. That is a total refund of 311.15 GBP or approx. 484 USD. As we discussed, that is not a total refund on the amount you paid for the ticket change. Let me stress that your claim finds our full understanding. Therefore I would like to offer you a full refund on both the change fee and fare difference, a total of 905 USD.

I hope you agree with this solution and if you do, please inform me and I will make sure that the amount will be refunded to your creditcard as soon as possible.

(Photo: D eivis/Flickr Creative Commons)