Lufthansa stranded my 16-year-old son in Detroit

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By Christopher Elliott

It’s something out of every mother’s worst nightmare: Your child is stranded at the airport and won’t be able to fly home unless he forks over thousands of dollars for a new ticket.

That nightmare came true for Gloria Castillo-Ibrahim and her 16-year-old son, Kareem Amir Gharib, recently. They’re inexperienced air travelers, but in a way, nothing could have prepared them for the trouble they experienced.

Castillo-Ibrahim wants me to help her fix this problem, but I’m not really sure if I can, or if I should. Your thoughts on this case would be helpful.

Booking mishap leads to last-minute passport name error

The problem began when Castillo-Ibrahim’s husband decided to surprise her son for Christmas by booking two roundtrip tickets from Cairo to Detroit on Lufthansa’s website.

“But he was unaware that our son’s last name was entered wrong on the reservation,” she said. “And I did not notice the error until the day of departure while at the boarding gate.”

OK, for those of you saying, “Hey, you should have looked at your reservation,” consider your point made. No doubt, Castillo-Ibrahim would have saved herself a giant headache by reviewing her itinerary. I think she knows that now.

So here’s what she ended up with: Her son’s name is Kareem Amir Gharib on his U.S. passport. But the name erroneously entered on the airline website reservation read Kareem Ibrahim. A friendly ticket agent might have fixed that at the ticket counter. I’ve seen it happen.

It didn’t happen to her, though. Even though she mentioned the name problem and tried to get it fixed, a Lufthansa agent told her it was “not a problem,” and that they could board.

Chaos on departure day

“The problem surfaced on Jan. 7, the day of our departure out of Detroit Metropolitan Airport,” she says. “While passing through the TSA security checkpoint, I was informed by the TSA agent that my son’s name on the boarding pass must match his passport.”

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Castillo-Ibrahim explained what had happened in Cairo. It didn’t matter.

“I was informed by the Detroit ticket counter that my son could not use his return ticket because of the name error, and that his reservation would be canceled and we would be charged $3,001 for a new one-way ticket,” she says.

The agents in Detroit seemed to have nothing better to do than argue with Castillo-Ibrahim and her son. (Related: Lufthansa lost my luggage and promised a $399 refund. So where is it?)

“The final insult came when the duty manager stated that she had no way of knowing if Kareem was really my son or if he was the person who commenced travel out of Cairo,” she says.

She paid Lufthansa for a new ticket, which came with the added benefit of being a business-class seat. So at least they got something out of it. But efforts to secure a refund were fruitless. (Who is responsible for minors on a plane?)

Here’s the response from Lufthansa:

On the ticket which you booked online and purchased for Kareem’s round trip journey commencing in Cairo, the name entered for the passenger, Ibrahim, Kareem, differed vastly from the child’s name on the passport, Gharib, Kareem Amir.

We understand Kareem traveled to Detroit uninterrupted; however, travel from the United States requires that the name on the ticket match the respective travel documents. We appreciate your understanding that, ultimately, it is the responsibility of the passenger to ensure that he or she is in possession of the proper documentation prior to departure, as well as to ensure proper handling of the documents in transit. (Here’s a story about Lufthansa and babies in business class.)

The airline bears no responsibility for handling of travel documents; therefore, any transactions are handled between the passenger and the respective immigration authorities. While agents may, on occasion, provide information at hand, the consulate or embassy of each individual country included in a passenger’s itinerary should be consulted before commencement of travel, due to frequently changing immigration and customs regulations.

In light of your situation, as a gesture of goodwill, our representatives provided Business Class seating from Detroit to Frankfurt, and, as advised previously, our colleagues in Cairo will be pleased to refund the unused portion of the above-mentioned ticket. While we realize our response may not be the one anticipated, no new information has come to light in support of your claim for a refund of [your one-way ticket]; therefore, I regret we are unable to provide further compensation.

Our response in no way suggests that we are insensitive to what happened and trust the remainder of your experience was in line with the fine service our customers have come to expect from us. Please be assured that we will work harder than ever to restore your confidence in our ability to provide good service as we look forward to welcoming your family. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

Castillo-Ibrahim is unhappy with that response. She says the airline should have fixed this in Cairo, before she left for her Christmas trip. I agree with her. Threatening to leave her son in Detroit was not a J.D. Power moment for Lufthansa. (Here’s a survival guide for parents flying with young children.)

“I understand my husband was at fault by mistakenly typing our son’s name wrong on the airline website, but I feel the Lufthansa Cairo ticket counter had a responsibility to inform me of the name discrepancy on my son’s reservation before printing the boarding pass,” she says. “They should have advised me of options for how to correct the error before our departure out of Cairo.” (Here’s our guide to booking an airline ticket.)

Still, I’m not sure what else can be done here. Refunding the walk-up fare would be a good start, or at least paying the difference between the refund for her son’s unused ticket and the walk-up fare. How about an apology? She’s already received two of them, a form apology and a fairly personalized letter with a resolution.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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