If only Michael Emmerling had held on to his passport. That thought must have occurred to him and to his economics professor, Russell McCullough, numerous times as they tried to navigate their way through an international travel quagmire.
Their story is a reminder to all international travelers that they need to retain their documents and have them ready at all times to verify their identities. Otherwise, they might not be leaving — or returning — home.
McCullough had arranged a student trip to India for himself, Emmerling, and two other students to Delhi on United Airlines through Expedia. Their return flights were booked on Air Canada via Toronto.
All three students gave their passports to McCullough so that he could apply for student visas for their travel to India. McCullough and the other two students would be coming from Kansas City, Mo., and Emmerling would be coming from Chicago. They intended to rendezvous at Newark, N.J., where they would catch their flight to Delhi. McCullough believed that he could give Emmerling his passport in Newark.
But because McCullough had Emmerling’s passport, United’s agent at Chicago’s Metropolitan Area Airport denied Emmerling a boarding pass for his Newark flight. She canceled his flight and did not offer any assistance to Emmerling, such as rebooking him on a domestic flight to Newark. Emmerling called McCullough, who was about to board his flight in Kansas City.
McCullough then spent two hours on the phone with agents of Expedia and United trying to resolve the situation. He finally decided to overnight mail Emmerling his passport and purchase him a nonstop one-way ticket on Air India the following day. McCullough specifically asked both Expedia’s agent and United’s agent whether Emmerling’s return booking on Air Canada would be affected, and both agents confirmed that the return booking would not be affected by the change in his flight to India. The group flew to India, and Emmerling joined them the following day.
But when it was time to check in for their return flights, they found that there was still a travel snafu. Although McCullough and the other two students were able to check in online, Emmerling was not.
McCullough called Air Canada’s customer service, whose agent could not determine why Emmerling could not check in. The agent assured McCullough that Emmerling’s reservation was confirmed and he just needed a boarding pass, which he could obtain at the Air Canada desk at the Delhi airport.
The group went to the airport, where Emmerling checked in and received his boarding pass. Then they boarded their return flight to Toronto.
Although Emmerling’s connection to Chicago was tight, the gate agent told him and McCullough that United had not paid Air Canada for the flight to Chicago and that he should not have been allowed to board the flight to Toronto. She also told him and McCullough that they would have to talk to United’s customer service to resolve the matter.
Emmerling and McCullough went to the United customer service desk, but it was 6:15 a.m. No one was at United’s customer service desk. An Air Canada agent at that airline’s desk nearby told them that United’s customer service desk was routinely understaffed and suggested that they find a United gate agent, who in turn told them that they would have to call Expedia. After an hour, an Expedia agent booked Emmerling on a new flight to Chicago and McCullough rushed back to his own gate to board his return flight to Kansas City, which was scheduled to take off at 8:30 a.m.
McCullough wanted a refund or flight credit from United of $1,200 for the costs of Emmerling’s canceled Chicago-Newark-Delhi flight and for the Toronto-to-Chicago flight for which United failed to pay Air Canada. He might have escalated his complaint to United, Air Canada, and Expedia by means of our company contacts, but he asked our advocates if we could help him get the compensation.
His situation is sticky, because United’s contract of carriage provides that:
Each Passenger desiring transportation across any international boundary is responsible for obtaining and presenting all necessary travel documents, which shall be in good condition, and for complying with the laws of each country flown from, through or into which he/she desires transportation.…
And let’s face it — he should have realized that Emmerling was going to need his passport at the beginning of the trip, even though the Chicago-to-Newark leg of his trip was strictly within the U.S.
So although he and Emmerling were greatly inconvenienced by United’s preventing Emmerling from boarding his flight to Newark, United’s cancellation of Emmerling’s flight was consistent with this provision.
But when Air Canada’s and Expedia’s agents confirmed to McCullough that Emmerling’s Toronto-to-Chicago reservation was still valid, Emmerling should have been allowed to board the flight. Air Canada’s gate agent’s refusal to allow Emmerling to board the flight, sending him and McCullough back to United to rebook his flight to Chicago, was poor customer service.
Our advocates reached out to Expedia on McCullough’s behalf, and McCullough has been issued a full refund of the extra costs of both tickets.