Jim and Debra Helgren set the wheels in motion to adopt not one, but five children from Latvia.
Then Aeroflot threw a wrench in the works.
Finalizing the adoptions required three trips to Latvia, the last of which was planned for December. Helgren’s wife booked 7 round-trip tickets on Aeroflot from Los Angeles to Riga, Latvia, for the entire family, at a cost of $6,200.
During the third trip, the five children left the U.S. with their original Latvian names and returned from Latvia on new Latvian passports with their new American names. The U.S. Embassy documentation that the family carried with them provided evidence of their official name changes.
As they say, the devil’s in the details.
Helgren says he had to purchase round trip tickets because at the time of booking, they didn’t yet have the children’s new passports, which were issued on the ground in Latvia the afternoon before their planned return to the United States. Aeroflot requires that passengers provide passport information at the time of booking.
Hours after their name changes were official, shortly after midnight, they arrived at the airport in Riga for their scheduled 2:20 a.m. departure for Los Angeles, with a stop in Moscow.
But there was one small problem. Rather, five small problems.
The Aeroflot agent told them they couldn’t check in because the names on their children’s new passports didn’t match the names on their reservations.
Aeroflot agents at the airport in Riga attempted to contact airline headquarters in Moscow, but given the time of day, were unable to reach anyone in a position to address the problem.
Helgren phoned Aeroflot’s customer service number, which was similarly unable to accommodate his family’s special situation. In the course of his conversation with customer service, the flight departed, and the phone agent gave him additional bad news: Since his departure time had passed, his tickets were no longer valid.
Stuck in Latvia with five children and no valid tickets, Helgren saw only one solution: buy new tickets.
“We purchased new one-way tickets on Lufthansa,” explains Helgren, “and flew home via Frankfurt.”
Last minute international tickets come at a high cost. And in this case, the cost for the Helgren family was a staggering 19,000 euros, which Helgren put on two credit cards.
Helgren has asked us for our guidance in finding a way out of his predicament. Of course, we sympathize with Helgren, and want to support clearly big-hearted people trying to build a family.
International adoption is not an easy or inexpensive endeavor. The process can take years, requiring endless paperwork, background checks, home studies, parenting workshops, medical and financial statements, government applications, and — let’s face it — thousands of dollars.
But this kind of debt is not something these parents bargained for. They had already purchased round trip tickets, and Aeroflot refused to let them board.
But did Aeroflot do anything wrong? Its own contract of carriage explicitly states:
Tickets may not be transferred for use by other persons. Only the passenger whose name and identification document details match the data provided when booking the ticket shall be accepted for carriage. Tickets issued for flights of PJSC Aeroflot must always contain details of the passenger’s identification document.
But what about those “other persons”? While the children’s names changed, as authorized by U.S. and Latvian authorities, the Helgrens were not attempting to transfer tickets to others. They were trying to get home following an official name change — circumstances not anticipated by airline rules.
And what about Lufthansa? Should the airline have charged the family their last minute, full fare, simply because that’s how airlines make money?
Some stories start out so right — then go so wrong — that our advocacy team feels compelled to make them right again.
This is one such story. But we don’t know yet if it will have a happy ending.
It remains to be seen whether either Aeroflot or Lufthansa will consider the human side of this story and listen to the pleas of a dad suddenly faced with unforeseen debt as he begins his new life with five children.
No matter what happens, we wish the Helgren family all the best as they embark on this next leg of their journey together.