My passport is not “machine readable.” There goes my birthday trip!

By | October 25th, 2016

What’s the first thing you should do when you plan an international trip?

If you said “Confirm the validity of your passport and investigate the visa requirements of the country you’ve decided to visit,” then maybe you know Thomas LaViolette.

LaViolette and his wife thought they had done that. But when they arrived at the airport and tried to check in for their Copa Airlines flight, the airline wouldn’t check them in because his wife’s passport wasn’t valid.

LaViolette wants a full refund of their tickets, plus reimbursement for the cancellation fees assessed by the hotel in Panama and the cost of his transportation to and from Los Angeles International Airport, and compensation for the vacation time he lost. His problem is just the latest in a series of paperwork cases that are difficult to solve but filled with important takeaways for the rest of us.

LaViolette thinks he did all the research that was required in order to take this trip to Panama. But there’s a lesson here: while you’re worrying about visas and airline tickets, don’t take your passport status for granted.

When they planned their trip south of the border for his wife’s birthday, LaViolette visited the website of the Embassy of Panama in the U.S. His wife holds a passport from Pakistan, but has permanent resident status in the U.S., which seems to satisfy the requirements for entering Panama.

According to the Embassy of Panama in the U.S. a tourist wishing to visit Panama for less than 60 days may do so without a visa if she has a valid passport with at least three months’ validity and a valid U.S. visa or permanent residence card. She must also have at least $500 and a return ticket.

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LaViolette’s wife had more than six months before her passport expired, and her permanent resident card is also valid. So why wouldn’t the Copa Airlines crew allow her to check in?

Copa’s staff informed the LaViolettes that the wife’s passport was a manual passport, and a machine passport is required. But no one at the embassy mentioned this requirement, and the requirement isn’t listed on the website. LaViolette contacted us to request help obtaining a refund, and our advocates investigated the issue, learning about a new government mandate regarding Pakistani passports.

It turns out that the Pakistani government ruled that all citizens must have machine-readable passports and that manual (hand-written) passports would expire on September 30, 2016.


Governments were notified by the Pakistan Embassy in their countries, and press releases were issued worldwide. When LaViolette asked the embassy personnel if his wife needed anything other than her passport and permanent resident card, should the staff have questioned whether her passport was manual or machine-readable? I think it’s reasonable to think the embassy should have known.

The announcement seems to have been made in August, but the original deadline was actually in late 2015. An “indefinite” extension was issued. Sometime this year a facility to produce the machine-readable passports opened in Los Angeles, where the LaViolettes live.

While I believe it is the responsibility of the passport holder to ensure she is complying with all requirements of the government that issued your passport, I also note that the new deadline seems to have been issued quite close to the departure of the LaViolettes’ trip.

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Copa Airlines followed immigration law on this one. With a passport that now expires in less than a month, LaViolette’s wife no longer complies with Panamanian immigration law. But it’s not unreasonable to give consideration to the fact that LaViolette booked the trip when his wife’s passport would still have six months of validity after the trip, and suddenly she has less than a month.

Copa Airlines offered a flight credit, but LaViolette doesn’t want it. He’s already used his vacation time, and he believes there is no way he will be able to travel before the credit expires. It’s not unreasonable to ask Copa to refund his tickets.

I don’t feel the same about all the other costs he’s claiming though. He asks for Copa to reimburse his airport transportation and his hotel cancellation fees. He also wants compensation for the vacation time he lost and can’t get back.

I think it’s fair to ask the hotel to refund the cancellation fees, just as he is requesting a refund from Copa, based on the suddenly announced deadline. He could probably appeal to the transportation company he used to get him to the airport and back home for a refund of his transportation fees as well. He can use contacts we list on our website to appeal to Copa Airlines and the other companies. I think the request for compensation for the vacation he didn’t get to take is a non-starter.

Our advocates sent LaViolette to our forums to see if our forum advocates had any suggestions to help him. We’d like to hear from you:

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  • Alan Gore

    What does Timatic say about Pakistani passports? This is a trip that should have been arranged with a travel agent.

  • Mel65

    I don’t like either of the poll questions. They are too binary. I think the answer is somewhere in between. This is an odd situation, where they thought the passport was fine, and thought they’d done due dilligence, but a unique requirement popped up. I’d never heard about the manual vs. machine passport, so I can’t say whether or not they “should” have known, or how widely publicized the requirement was, but asking for a complete do over, fees and vacation time compensation is greedy. I think Copa offering airline credit, maybe for more than a year since he may not have vacay time within a year, would be nice but, ultimately, the rest is on them … IMHO.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    This is a hard case, and it isn’t fair to anyone.

  • FQTVLR

    This is a mixed bag of blame–enough to go around for both the embassy and for La Violette. My husband immigrated to the US. One thing we always did, before he became a US citizen, was to check regularly with his home country to make sure passport requirements had not changed. Changes occurred a number of times and we had to replace his passport each time a change was made. We checked with countries we were visiting too, but never overlooked the fact that the rules/laws of the issuing country might change. Yes, the Panamanian Embassy should have known this, but it does not excuse them completely for not keeping up with the rules/laws of the issuing country regarding such a vital document. I hope they get the ticket refund from Copa, but all the other demands are simply ridiculous.

  • sirwired

    I’d say it’s rather UN-reasonable to ask Copa to refund her ticket; it went flying off into the proverbial sunset without her; if there was ever a situation to not refund a non-refundable ticket, this would be it. It wasn’t Copa’s fault in any way, shape, or form; they have no control over the passport rules set by the Pakastani government.

    And I don’t understand the first poll option at all… Copa can’t “allow” them to travel anyway (to do so would have run the risk of heavy fines), and certainly the airport ticket counter doesn’t exactly give Panama much time to make any sort of decision either. (If I’m Panama, I’d say “no”; if the Pakastani government wants to invalidate passports on short notice, what is Panama supposed to do about it?)

    *****

    On another note: “He could probably appeal to the transportation company he used to get him to the airport and back home for a refund of his transportation fees as well.”

    Huh??? Ask for the airport shuttle company to refund their fares? Why on earth would they do that? They took them to/from the airport. Job done. Product used.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    “Copa Airlines followed immigration law on this one. With a passport that now expires in less than a month, LaViolette’s wife no longer complies with Panamanian immigration law.”

    “Copa Airlines offered a flight credit, but LaViolette doesn’t want it. He’s already used his vacation time, and he believes there is no way he will be able to travel before the credit expires. It’s not unreasonable to ask Copa to refund his tickets.”

    I think that it is unreasonable to ask Copa to refund his tickets. I don’t see why Copa Airlines is at fault here…they followed the immigration law. They were nice enough to offer a flight credit.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    Most if not all airlines states that the passenger is responsible for meeting the passport and visas requirements. Unless Copa made an error (the article says that it didn’t) in regards to the passportvisa requirements, it is on the OP.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    “enough to go around for both the embassy and for La Violette”

    Why not ask the Panamanian Embassy to pay? instead of Copa? Copa did nothing here except to follow the immigration laws and everyone is expecting them to pay.

  • Jeff W.

    Are you truly advocating in your poll question that Copa should have knowingly violated the law by letting someone fly that does not meet the passport requirements of the countries involved? And if Copa got caught, who pays the massive fines? Copa or the LaViolette’s.

    If you want to blame someone, blame the Pakistani gov’t. They changed the rules. But that is not realistic, nor are the demands for the OP.

    They got a bum rap by the change in passport requirements. The airline, hotel, transporation companies, etc… should not bear a loss either.

    It is also unlikely a travel agent would have caught that scenario. I think the only thing missing was a mention that they visited the Pakistani embassy or website to make sure everything was valid.

  • FQTVLR

    Very true, but they have a better chance with Copa.

  • Extramail

    Just out of curiosity: why are there so many sponsored links now on these stories? Is there a way to not have to scroll past all of them and just get the story by itself? I know ads pay the bills but does anybody ever click on those links? This site is getting to be too junky for me and, in my humble opinion, diminishes the effectiveness of the advocacy.

  • sirwired

    It’s not the Panamanian embassy’s fault either. It was Pakistan that decided to prematurely invalidate non-machine-passports.

  • Mel LeCompte Jr.

    They’ve been faking Melissa McCarthy’s death for a for six months now. Exactly how long does it take for her to ‘Say her goodbyes’? If elliott.org needs advertising revenue, can’t they at least search out for relevant, mainstream advertisers?

  • sirwired

    Wow. Didn’t realize it had gotten that bad; glancing at AdBlock, the page is up to an incredible 90 blocked elements.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    They should file a claim with the Pakistan government.

    The reality is that the OP is ultimately responsible for the passportvisa requirements when traveling.

  • Bill___A

    Maybe it wasn’t good that there wasn’t time, but I don’t see how it is the airline’s fault for following government directives.

  • Extramail

    Is that how you block the ads, with Adblock? If so, I’ll look into it to add to my device because I’m sick of all the ads on everything I read these days. More power to Chris if he’s making money doing this, but, I, for one, am close to becoming a non-reader just so I don’t have to scroll through ads to get to content. And, poor Melissa McCarthy . . .

  • Extramail

    And, Jennifer Anniston has been pregnant for an astounding two years. Hope she delivers soon!

  • Kristiana Lee

    Copa’s hands were tied. They had to comply with the law so none of this is their fault. What the LaViolettes are asking for (transportation to and from the airport, lost vacation days, hotel costs!!) is so unreasonable that I wouldn’t be surprised if that credit is Copa’s final offer, which is more than fair. From Copa’s perspective, here’s a person who’s going to be unhappy no matter what it does. So do they spend a little or a lot of their own money to make this guy unhappy? I know which one I’d choose.

  • Rebecca

    I’m completely failing to understand how this is the airline’s fault (or the hotel’s and transportation company’s for that matter). I completely understand how this situation could have occurred, I really do. But the implication that the airline should have allowed her to travel, when THEY are the ones that are liable in terms of fees and return transportation is completely outrageous. Here again, two days in a row, we have an article looking to place blame on a party that has zero responsibility.

    Frankly, I find it completely opposite of this site’s mission to just go after whoever appears to have the deepest pocket to collect from. That’s not only morally reprehensible, it smacks in the face the “compassion” and fairness that this site purports to advocate. Outrageous. As others have stated, it IS completely “unreasonable to ask Copa to refund his tickets.” Ditto for the hotel and transportation companies.

    For shame. Going after someone that has filled pockets to line your own with their honestly earned, terms-clearly-spelled-out monies. This particular case is more agregious and unreasonable than any I can remember. This OP expects the airline to either break the law, or, if they don’t, to give him not only a full refund, but an additional windfall? And this site, purporting to be on the moral highground, attempts to even give this the time of day? For shame, for shame, for shame.

    I propose a new rule for cases that come across the desk of any advocate. If the request involves any version of the following, it should go directly in the trash:

    “….and compensation for the vacation time he lost.”

  • MarkKelling

    It’s the auto play videos that are killing my computer and chasing me away from spending more time here. Sometimes there are 3 or more video ads all trying to play at the exact same time!

  • Rebecca

    Personally, and I speak from experience managing a department that received this type of request, the option I’d choose is to throw the request in the trash after I passed it around for a good laugh.

  • Rebecca

    Thank you, I’m going to do that right now. It takes longer to load and it really is a pain to scroll so far.

  • Rebecca

    That’s funny. I keep getting one faking Ellen DeGeneres’ death!

  • Rebecca

    Apparently, knowing that will go nowhere fast, it’s been decided that the advocates should go after someone who is completely not responsible, but has the money to spend. I can’t be the only one that sees the irony.

  • Michael__K

    Timatic covers this today, but a better question is what did Timatic say on the date when they booked?

    And how many travel agents will systematically re-examine Timatic for changes that might affect bookings that they’ve already completed?

    Passport Exemptions:
    – Passengers with an emergency or a temporary passport.

    Admission and Transit Restrictions:
    – Visitors with a non-machine readable passport are not allowed to enter.

  • Michael__K

    “I think the only thing missing was a mention that they visited the Pakistani embassy or website to make sure everything was valid.”

    I was with you up until there. Who has on their trip planning checklist, “double check that my country hasn’t discontinued my passport which has not expired.” (And how many times do you need to double check this before departure?)

  • sirwired

    On another note, I can’t really blame the customer for the initial problem. I can’t say it would have occurred to me to verify with my own government they hadn’t decided to kill my passport years early.

    But that said, this is just a terrible situation, and there simply is NO party that’s really liable to “make things right”. Not the Panama govt., not the airline, not the hotel, not the airport shuttle (that one totally baffles me). If any party at fault, it’d be the Pakastani govt. for invalidating passports early, but the chances of them paying are exactly zero.

  • Kristiana Lee

    Until very recently, I too was the person who got to deal with requests like this and I wouldn’t have offered much either.

  • Rebecca

    I’m so glad I don’t deal with it anymore and I never will again. No amount of money would be enough!!!

  • AAGK

    Pakistan suddenly decided to get into compliance and invalidated all manual passports with one month notice. Copa’s hands were tied, though it is kind to offer the credit. This guy did a ton of research, which makes this more unfortunate. I guess the take away is unstable military run taliban controlled governments are not that reliable?

    She’s married to an American. She should just get a US passport.

  • Kristiana Lee

    Getting US citizenship via marriage takes years. The article doesn’t say how long they’ve been married but she may not qualify yet.

  • C Schwartz

    Machine readable passports were put into widespread use in the early 2000s. It is unfortunate that several countries continued after that time to issue hand written passports (or the old passports were valid for a very long time) and then suddenly decided that they had to modernize. I do not see how it is the airline’s fault or even the fault of the Embassy of Panama — how are the Panamanians supposed to know when other countries are invalidating their own passports. Very unfortunate for the OP and spouse, but the fault lies with the passport issuing countries.

  • PsyGuy

    Are you saying every RL TA would have known? This is one of those things if you didn’t just read it because it effects you personally or a client who just suffered this problem, it’s likely the TA wouldn’t have had a clue.

  • PsyGuy

    You can’t get immediate citizenship after marrying an American, it can take several years depending on the region the spouse immigrates from.

  • PsyGuy

    There really isn’t anyone to blame, I try to avoid assigning malice to the origination of behavior when the fault can be attributed to stupidity. A refund of hotel and flight is probably the best case scenario. The rest is just the LW being frustrated and upset. Life is always fair, just not always for you.

  • AAGK

    I know that. However, if she hasn’t yet, she may want to start the process. Or called the Pakistan Consulate.

  • pauletteb

    How is this SNAFU the airline’s fault? I don’t think he’s owed anything.

  • pauletteb

    Totally agree!

  • Tracy Larson

    It’s also not automatic that you get a US passport. My husband is Canadian and he has a Canadian passport. He can’t get a US one unless he becomes a US citizen. You don’t automatically get citizenship for marrying an American. You have to apply for it if you want it, and that process can take years, as there are steps you have to take first to get it.

  • joycexyz

    It sounds as if this new requirement was a total surprise. LaViolette did his homework, but the embassy didn’t inform him of the change, nor is it on their website. I suppose there are always complications when someone is travelling on a foreign passport, but how much of a detective is a person supposed to be?

  • joycexyz

    They’re beyond ridiculous, but obviously generate enough revenue. I don’t even give them a glance anymore. It’s the price we pay for a “free” website.

  • Lindabator

    He never SPOKE to anyone – clearly states he went online – if he was really concerned, a quick phone call might have been better

  • Lindabator

    true – and it was noted in 2015

  • Lindabator

    we could find out the info (was listed in 2015)

  • Lindabator

    was listed in 2015, and an extension given for those who had not taken care of, but he could have done so locally, just didn’t

  • AAGK

    I know that.

  • greg watson

    I must really have missed something…………people are discussing this story, citizenship. adblock & ??

  • AMA

    Adblock Plus is your friend. I can’t deal with a computer that doesn’t have it installed.

  • Jeff W.

    You are correct. But most people live in country A have a passport from country A and are visiting country X.

    She lives in country A, has a passport issued from country B, and is visiting country X. Which means the rules are different for her and she needs to check with A and B before visiting X.

    It gets really complicated when juggling the documentation requirements of three countries instead of two.

  • Michael__K

    It’s the country you’re visiting which decides the requirements for entry.

    They checked Panama’s rules, which clearly state that a valid US I-551 and a valid Pakistani passport expiring 3+ months after travel are good for entry.

    They had no reason to believe that her Pakistani passport was discontinued, which rendered that passport not valid for travel anywhere, regardless of what legal residence[s] she does or doesn’t have elsewhere.

  • Lindabator

    except that Pakistan had already issued the alert in 2015

  • Michael__K

    Was that noticed posted somewhere these passengers could have realistically been expected to check?

    And if they saw notice, what should they have done given that the facility to produce machine-readable passports was not yet available and given that Pakistan issued an “indefinite extension?”

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