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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