Nassim Baci couldn’t believe it when Alitalia refused to let him fly from Istanbul, where he lives with his wife and daughter, to Algiers. Baci planned to spend a week with his extended family, whom he hadn’t seen in a year. He booked his ticket, which included a change of planes in Rome, on Alitalia’s website.
There was just one small, problematic detail.
Baci, whose name is Arabic, writes his name in Arabic letters. When he writes his name in Roman letters, such as on an airline ticket, he sometimes spells his first name “Nassim” and sometimes spells it “Nacim.” In this case, he booked his ticket using the spelling “Nassim,” but his passport bears the name “Nacim.”
Despite the fact that his passport photo and fingerprint matched his physical characteristics, the Alitalia agent in Istanbul refused to let Baci board the flight.
The agent’s solution? Purchase new tickets.
Baci had spent 230 euros for his original itinerary, and the last-minute replacement fare was offered at 550 euros. Unfortunately for Baci, that was a price increase he was simply unable to absorb.
Baci did not take this news very well. He had planned for months on seeing his family, and he traveled three hours from his home to get to the airport in Istanbul.
To make matters worse, Baci felt that the agent was discriminating against him because of his Arabic name. He reports that there is anti-Arab sentiment in Turkey, particularly in light of the recent humanitarian crisis and arrival of Syrian refugees to the country.
He confronted the Alitalia agent about his perceived treatment, and the agent denied any type of discrimination. She assured him she was simply observing airline protocol, according to which the name on the passport and ticket must match — exactly.
Front line agents are generally not empowered to make changes to the flight manifest, especially not in the hours leading up to departure. Had Baci been allowed to board the flight, he may have had bigger problems with customs and immigration at international borders during his journey. It is much easier for an airline to apply the rules in a strict fashion, instead of creating a risk that a passenger might have problems during his or her travels due to inconsistencies in documents.
We contacted Alitalia on Baci’s behalf, and they offered to reissue the same tickets for him within a year of his purchase date, or January 2017. Alitalia is imposing a 60 euro “penalty” to reissue the tickets.
I actually felt bad for Baci. By a simple human error, he had to abandon his plans to travel to Algiers, and instead, returned home, defeated. The mistake he made caused him to miss his family trip, and I thought that was penalty enough.
I asked Alitalia to waive the fee in consideration of my argument, but the airline didn’t agree. Alitalia insisted that the offer to reissue his tickets with a 60 euro penalty is as good as they can do. Baci will rebook his trip when his schedule allows, taking advantage of the offer.
Baci shared his disappointment with me. “I guess this is the best we can do, but it’s better than losing everything,” he wrote. “But was this entirely my mistake? This really had an effect on me.”
In the world we live in, global airlines are sensitive to document inconsistencies for security reasons. This is also true in the United States, where TSA agents are rigid in their documentation requirements, in line with the Secure Flight program.
Most people, regardless of the circumstances, experience feelings of embarrassment and humiliation when they are denied boarding. Freedom of movement is something that we don’t appreciate enough, and when it is taken from us, we feel threatened to our core.
I believe Baci’s is not an Arabic experience, but a human experience.