Not noticing error in her passport makes for very bad trip

CONSUMING INTERESTS

July 27, 2008|By DAN THANH DANG

When it comes to consumer complaints, blame flies fast and furious. Companies blame faulty technology or confused workers. Workers blame bad company policies and, occasionally, unreasonable consumers with unrealistic expectations. And consumers blame everyone involved - from an employee on up to corporate management and the governmental body that regulates the company.

Seldom does anyone blame himself.

Joelle Miller, a graduate student, wrote in recently about a colossally bad experience she had while flying from Washington to Johannesburg, South Africa, on June 3.

Here's her story:

"The U.S. State Department issued me a passport with a typo."

"South African Airways would not let me into South Africa."

"South African Airways would not let me call the U.S. Embassy."

"South African Airways sent me back to the U.S. and won't refund my ticket."

"Last but not least, South African Airways lost my luggage."

Miller wrote that upon arrival in Johannesburg, South African customs officials would not allow her through because her U.S. government-issued passport listed a birth date of 1932 instead of 1982. Miller said SAA refused to let her call the U.S. Embassy and sent her on the next flight back to Washington.

Miller said the goal of her trip was to volunteer in Kigali to enhance her professional development.

"South African Airways is refusing to issue me a new ticket even though they unfairly sent me back to the U.S.," Miller said. "I'm a master's degree candidate in conflict resolution studies ... and have saved for months to take this volunteering trip. South African Airways needs to be held responsible."

After 33 hours on the plane ride over, I'm sure that was a miserable and grueling trip back, which probably allowed plenty of time to add fuel to Miller's outrage. I sympathize.

I have not been able to contact Miller since she sent me this missive, so I'm unable to share any other details of her ordeal. I'm hoping she finally made it to her destination.

But sympathy aside, we have to look at the facts.

Under SAA's Rules of Carriage, which are available on its Web site at ww3.flyssa.com, "You are responsible for obtaining all required travel documents and visas and for complying with all laws, regulations, orders, demands and travel requirements of countries to be flown from, into or through which you transit."

When traveling overseas, it's incumbent on you, the passenger, to make sure your tickets are all in order, that your documents are accurate, that your shots or vaccinations are up-to-date, and that you've double-checked all your travel plans.

"With heightened security since 9/11, airlines have to be much more careful," said David S. Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a group that represents the interests of fliers. "We, as passengers, have to take responsibility for our own actions when we can take control of them. It was this passenger's error for not checking the documents. These are critical documents. All criteria should be checked carefully. Even a little misspelling in your name could become a problem."

The knee-jerk reaction is to blame the airline, since it was SAA that flew her back home. But keep in mind: The airline was merely complying with immigration laws. It was South African immigration officials who denied Miller's entry into the country because her passport was incorrect.

"When I was younger, I used to work in the immigration department at Kennedy Airport in New York," Stempler said. "It was not unusual for people to come in and to not have correct credentials. They would turn those people back to the airline to take back. It really does happen. The airlines are responsible for you until you end up in the other country."

So did SAA play any role in Miller's trip going awry? Yes. It allowed her to fly with a bad passport.

Did SAA pay for that misstep? Yes. South Africa's Department of Foreign Affairs fined the airline about R10,000 because Miller was allowed to travel without accurate documents. said Robyn Chalmers, an SAA spokesman.

The exchange rate last week was 7.6495 rand to the dollar, which means the SAA fine was a little over $1,328.

Miller's request to get a refund for her round-trip ticket is unlikely to get off the ground.

SAA's carriage rules say that it "shall not be liable for the consequences to any passenger resulting from his or her failure to obtain such documents or visas or to comply with such laws, regulations, orders, demands, requirements, rules or instructions."

Technically speaking, SAA did fly her to South Africa and then flew her back to the United States.

Should Miller press the repayment issue, she should prepare for SAA to play hardball, too.

The SAA carriage rules state that if the airline has to pay a fine or penalty because of a passenger's failure to produce required documents or to comply with laws, orders or other travel requirements, "you shall reimburse us on demand, any amount so paid or expenditure so incurred."

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