When airlines misread passport rules, who pays?

Question: My husband and I were scheduled to take a Spirit Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to San Jose, Costa Rica. The afternoon before my flight, my dog chewed a corner off the front page of my husband’s passport and we were concerned about having proper documentation.

We arrived at the airport almost three hours early in order to have enough time to ask a ticket agent. He seemed seasoned and professional, and he assured us that there would be no problem with the passport, as the number could still be manually inputted.

We asked him to make sure with the proper authorities, as we did not want to have a problem once we arrived in Costa Rica or returning from Costa Rica. We were prepared to change the flight until Monday, after we could have replaced the passport on an emergency basis, if there was any threat of an issue. The ticket agent assured us that there would be “absolutely no reason for concern.”

When we arrived in San Jose at about 2:30 a.m. we were denied admission by Costa Rican immigration and told to return. The immigration officer told us that the airline should have never boarded us. We were back in Fort Lauderdale by 5 a.m.

I called and wrote to Spirit asking for a voucher for a return trip, as I feel they were responsible under the circumstances. Had their agent not assured us, we would not have boarded the flight.

Now we have no tickets and we wasted a lot of time and money. Spirit has declined our request stating that proper documentation is our responsibility. That may be true, but they also have a responsibility to board only those passengers that are properly documented. In our case, a Spirit representative gave us assurances that were just simply wrong.

I don’t think my request for a voucher that would allow us to make the trip to Costa Rica to be unreasonable. What do you think? — Olga Parra, Boca Raton, Fla.

Answer: The dog ate your passport? Seriously? That’s a new one. Maybe he didn’t want you to go on vacation.

I think you’re right. If Spirit assured you that your passport was acceptable and allowed you to board, it bears some responsibility for your denied entry. Its response about paperwork requirements, while true, conveniently omits that fact.

A quick look at the State Department’s website will reveal the information you need. On Costa Rica’s page there’s a clear warning that, “Passports should be in good condition; Costa Rican Immigration may deny entry if the passport is damaged in any way.”

Had either you or the Spirit representative done a little research beforehand, this could have been avoided.

I wouldn’t take an airline employee’s word for it unless you’re talking about airline policy. The Spirit ticket agent you spoke with may have seemed experienced and his words may have sounded assuring, but he didn’t represent Costa Rica.

As it turns out, he had relied on inaccurate information from another website when he gave you the assurances that you could enter Costa Rica with a damaged passport. It wasn’t an official source, so Spirit bears at least some of the responsibility for allowing you to board its flight without proper documentation.

I contacted the airline on your behalf. It apologized to you and said it would implement a new policy “for the benefit of other travelers” when it comes to documentation requirements. Spirit issued two flight vouchers to make up for the trouble.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Dog ate my passport. Wow.

    This is a tough one. While I feel for the OP (it must have been horrific to discover damage to the passport so close to travel time), asking a TICKET AGENT as to whether a foreign gov’t would accept a damaged passport? Really? He should’ve been up front, told her where he was getting his info and that he wasn’t a reliable source.

    That being said, well done to Spirit on giving them vouchers. If it were me, I probably would’ve split it 50-50 with them. Or made the dog pay.

  • kakeyte

    I’m afraid that I had to vote for traveller’s responsibility. Ultimately, as the various websites/government departments will note – the traveller is the person who is responsible. Yes she got some duff information, but I would never rely on the word of someone at check-in. As we see you haev no come-back when they get it wrong so I would prefer to get these things right myself before travelling!

  • Raven_Altosk

    Am I reading this right? Spirit actually did some good will!?!?

    It is the traveler’s responsibility, and I’d never take a ticket agent’s word on something like this…that’s why we have smart phones. 


    Spirit did some good will?

    I think I need another cup of coffee…

  • backprop

    At first I had a little sympathy.  I still do.  But after reading it a second time, not as much.  Though I do have to say, the request is a much more reasonable one than some as of late ;)

    The OP knew there might be an issue, arriving three hours early (OK….) so that….(here’s where it breaks down)…they could ask the ticket agent.

    There are a lot of things you could understandably ask a ticket agent that, on second thought, you really need to ask someone else:  TSA procedures, customs regulations, good cuisine to try at your destination, and….passport and visa concerns.

    Granted, Spirit bore the burden of getting them back immediately when immigration turned them down in Costa Rica, and they did.  So they have an incentive to be more knowledgeable about passport requirements than an average joe, but it’s not their expertise. 

    So, another good lesson!  Don’t rely on hearsay.  Ask yourself, what happens if this person is wrong?  Does this person’s word actually carry any official weight on the subject matter??

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    You’re right, Sprit came through. But you can still have another cup of coffee. Personally, I need espresso for the six-hour drive today with three screaming kids in the back.

  • lost_in_travel

    Spirit does bear some responsibility – how many times have we read that the airline or the cruise ship won’t let someone board because documents are missing?  This time they did let someone board whose documents were “missing”.  The passenger recognized that there could be a problem and even offered to change the flights for a later date to get an emergency replacement passport.  Isn’t the ticket agent the one who would refuse to let someone missing a visa travel on the airline? 

    It seems to me that rejecting a “damaged” passport was intended to weed out potential forgeries and that slightly dog chewed was not foreseen, but one is always at the mercy of immigration authorities to decide.  The quote said “may”.

    I am glad Spirit gave them vouchers. They have a great travel story to tell. And I learned that a passport must be pristine if I ever go to Costa Rica. 

  • lost_in_travel

    Chris, try herbal tea instead.  Perhaps if you are not too wired, the kids will not be either.  Kids and dogs pick up on moods and vibrations and I think “time out” is often more for the parent to regroup than the kid.  So deep breath, don’t expect screaming, deep breath……

  • Cyn2

     Spirit would also have had to pay a fine to Costa Rica for transporting a passenger who was refused entry.

  • john4868

    I voted for the traveler in this poll although I think the outcome was correct in this case. Having the proper documentation for international air travel is entirely the traveler’s responsibility. In this case, the traveler asked the airline if their documentation met the required standards for entry and received a yes. At that point, the airline assumes some responsibility for their employee’s answer so issuing the flight vouchers is reasonable. I don’t think the airline assumes responsibility by simply letting someone on the aircraft.

  • Kevin Mathews

    I’m not sure when the last time you put a child in timeout was, but there is nothing soothing about a child in timeout.  Mine generally get louder for the first few minutes they are there until they realize that’s not helping…

  • Don Spilky

    Seriously, 54% for “shared responsibility”?  I didn’t realize that airline employees were now working for consulates.  I guess we all just need someone (else) to blame…

  • sirwired

    The airline DID pay.  Countries fine airlines for transporting passengers that do not have proper documentation, and the airline is also required to transport the passenger home on the next flight, even if that flight is otherwise full, and even if that passenger only purchased a one-way ticket.

    The only reason airlines check your documentation is to protect themselves… but it is ultimately the passenger’s responsibility.  The passenger should have called the Costa Rican consulate to ask this question prior to departure.

  • Daves

    I think I need another cup of coffee…

    Me too. Looks like Spirit developed some “spirit” for a change, and it’s not even the holidays there yet! (depending which one, perhaps…)

  • Daves

    Try the quiet game? :P

  • Bernard Rappoport

    This Costa Rican “requirement” is an underhanded way to discretely ask for a cash payment under the table to their Customs officer…this is a country that has become a refuge for every financial fraudster alive, all because they have “pristine passports” and not “pristine reputations”.

  • jimzmum

    Personal responsibiliy. It is easy to check on- line or with a phone call.

  • SoBeSparky

    Since this is about Spirit Airlines, we could easily blame everything on them considering their customer service track record.  But let’s look at the facts.

    The passenger is the one travelling to a foreign country. Only one person is accountable, the passenger.  Only one entity makes the rules, the foreign country in question.  The airline is not in this equation.

    The airline checks the documents as it is required to transport you out of the foreign country should your documents be inadequate.  The airlines job is to get you there, not to get you admitted to the country.

    The fact an airline checks documents is no reason to believe you will be admitted to a country.  Just like when TSA checks your boarding pass, it is no reason to believe the gate number is correct or the flight is on time.  Those are not the purview of the TSA, and getting admitted to a foreign country is not in the purview of the airline.

  • Rosered7033

    Definitely the passenger’s responsibility.  I wouldn’t trust the TSA to tell me what color shirt I was wearing, much less opine on what may be acceptable passport info in another country.

  • SoBeSparky

    The only reason the transportation medium checks the documents is to reduce its potential liability in getting said passenger out of the country when he or she is not admitted.  The foreign country tells the transportation company, “This passenger is yours.  Get her/him out of here.  It is your responsibility.”

    The airlines have no knowledge if the documents are valid or not.  They could be fake.  They could be of a wanted felon in the foreign country.  There are all sorts of potential issues unknown to the airlines.  Airlines are just performing a simple scan to eliminate obvious “refused entry” passengers.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    I’m simply shaking my head that people are choosing on the poll anything but the passenger being responsible for their having proper documentation.

    If they had enough time in this to choose to get there three hours early, they had enough time to contact someone in an official capacity about this.  Unless it happened within two or three days of their traveling, they had time to fix this.

    Like someone said in the comments here, I guess people just really need someone to blame for their own mishaps.

  • IGoEverywhere

    Again, where was their travel agent. We are trained to know and advise that the “proper documentation” is the responsibility of the PASSENGER, not the airline boob. Any ASTA agent would have said no way to travel on this passport. They must have been well trained to try that one.

  • MarkieA

    I agree with all of the posters so far who have advocated for “personal responsibility”; I mean, who thinks that a ticket agent is the final word for passport requirements? However, take your arguments to the next logical step. Everyone says that it’s the travelers’ responsibility to know the rules. OK, so where does the traveler go to find this out? The US State Department? The Costa Rican embassy?  In this case, it seems that a quick(?) read of the DOS website would have given the OP the correct answer but, what happens when a situation is not covered in written rules? 
    What happens when you have to rely on verbal answers form the “experts” and they turn out to be faulty?

  • john4868

    @MarkieA:disqus I agree with you on the last question. If they show up and the Spirit employee says “I don’t know check the embassy”, I don’t see Spirit having any responsibility. If the OPs don’t ask and get onboard, no responsibility. In this case they asked and got the wrong answer so the responsibility, I think, is shared and issuing flight vouchers (but nothing for ground arrangements) make sense.

  • JenniferFinger

    I voted “shared responsibility” because Spirit’s ticket agent did give them the wrong information and did allow them to board when they should not have.  That said, they certainly had a responsibility not to let their dog eat their passport or let it get damaged in any other way, not to mention checking out Costa Rica’s requirements for themselves.

  • $16635417

    Ultimately passenger’s responsibility.

    That being said, Spirit agent screwed up too. But I wonder, if the agent had said “no”, how well the subsequent exchange would have went. The passenger did not have their docs in order in time for the flight and may have had to forfeit everything.

  • https://me.yahoo.com/a/5eKbZXoptotAyXTBCL8iE7XZ#ae6ff J

    I don’t know about this one. Maybe there are some details missing, but it seems like if they knew something was wrong enough with the passport that they showed up at the airport early, they also could have looked up the passport requirements themselves and/or contacted the State Department or Costa Rican Consulate. Instead they repeatedly asked a ticket agent? The way the article describes it, it sounds like they went venue shopping for the answer they wanted to hear.

  • ClareClare

    You’re right on–Spirit paid the fine, and they also “paid” for the OP’s return-trip to the US.  The OP had to be transported back to the States at Spirit’s expense. 

  • mythsayer

     They said they would have been able to change their flight to get an emergency passport, so I’m taking their word that they could have done that had he told them it might be a problem.

  • bodega3

    Actually Wayne, most countries have a similar requirement. 

  • mythsayer

    Okay, my two cents.  I found the damaged passport/Costa Rica thing super quick… like two seconds.  I definitely would have googled that.  I’m obsessive about stuff like that.  But, they did… okay, fine.  That’s an issue for sure. The problem I see in this case, as a standalone incident, is that they asked an employee of Spirit Airlines and he made a representation to them that it would be fine and then allowed them to board the plane.  As a agent (and I say this in the legal term, not in the travel agent type term) of Spirit Airlines, his representation may have been binding on the airline.  So yeah, passengers should have checked.  But in this case, they relied upon an employee’s word, and that may have some legal effect.

  • passport junky

    I don’t know where you get your “information” from, but for the 25 years I have lived in Costa Rica, (and traveled in and out of the country hundreds of times, by air, sea and land), I have never, ever, been asked for any type of “cash payment” from the immigration officials. 

    “This is a country that has become a refuge for EVERY financial fraudster alive……” 


  • Asiansm Dan

    It’s not the airlines responsibility when your dog chew, eat or bite something or someone and even the reading of the rules of Costa Rica immigration. It’s clearly indicated in the transportation contract. But in this case, the Airlines boarded the passengers so they took the responsibility of the interpretation of the “good condition of the Passports” in their own hand. So they should and must provide the replacement for the inconvenience of their customers.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4DMVW6EDML54CXFQMZHZCZ7WEY EmilyE

     Passports don’t have to be pristine – normal wear and tear is fine and (often) expected. But a whole corner missing is something different. And I doubt bribes would have gotten them out of this actually.

  • emanon256

    My thoughts too!  Wow!

  • bodega3

    I have mixed feelings on how this was handled by the OP and the carrier, but then I am in the travel business and that is coloring my view.  Since this happened in the afternoon, on the day prior, she had time to go online and check since she had a question in her mind about it.  A simple call to a visa service would have helped as well.  But I also understand her thought that letting the carrier look at it and make the decision as they are not allowed to board passengers will improper IDs.  By letting the carrier decide with the passport in front of them, then the changing of the flight would be easier, too. 

    I am glad this has worked out by the OP and a good lesson for anyone reading about it on knowing that your ID’s must be in very good condition for air travel to be valid for travel.

  • $16635417

    But we don’t know what the change fee and fare difference would have been. While they may have been willing to change, would they have balked at having to pay for that change?

  • Sadie_Cee

    Those who voted for “shared responsibility” seem to expect airline employees, in this case ticket agents, to be agents of the Costa Rican government, no less!!!!

  • bodega3

    If they had balked, that would have been too bad.  Keeping a passport safe is a travelers responsibility..

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=621016048 Linda Monk

    A woman in my daughter’s group was denied boarding in Cancun on their way home. Her passport had a few small watermarks on it, she had to stay a few extra days while a new passport was issued.

  • bodega3

    The airlines do have a responsibility.  While this doesn’t fall under the informaiton in TIMATIC, they do use this to determine if you can or can’t board.

  • bodega3

    Yes, they do have a responsibility and that is why they can be fined.

  • judyserienagy

    I think it’s technically a shared responsibility, but the reality today is that passengers cannot rely on airline employees, they must do the research themselves.  There seems to be a prevailing attitude of “Say/do anything to get rid of the problem passenger” with some airline people.  Oo course, we are reminded every day that some airline people are truly service-minded and take very good care of their customers. 

    As Chris showed us, “damage” was right there on the State Department website.  What an awful situation.  I cannot imagine gearing up for a great trip only to be promptly put back on a plane for home.  Ugh.  One of the reasons I so enjoy these daily stories is that I am forced to think about the worst case scenario in my own travels and hopefully solve problems before they manifest themselves.

  • http://gspirits.com/ Zod

    You’ld think that in today’s always on, always connected world, while in the airport, they could have looked that up on their own smartphone. They don’t have a smartphone? Well, that’s pretty dumb!

  • TonyA_says

    i’ll take 3 screaming kids before 3 teens :)

  • Lindabator

    If the client knew this was a problem, a quick look online at the State Department’s info on Costa Rica CLEARLY states it must be in good condition, or they may deny entry.  My question here is – who did Spirit go to for their info???

  • TonyA_says

    good point. the passport (condition) was good enough for Spirit. Not good enough for officials of CR. I doubt any airline emp will go as far as to guarantee what the govt would do.

  • Lindabator

    Thank you – seems bigotry on this site is really growing by leaps and bounds!

  • TonyA_says

    You know the could have blamed their dog :_

  • TonyA_says

    Agree. What kind of people will let their dog chew their passport. Either that dog belongs to an animal shelter for discipline issues or the owners are negligent.

  • TonyA_says

    I guess Good Condition can mean differently to different folks just like when one buys used books at Amazon.