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A visa problem on American Airlines. Who should pay?

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 11/27/2020 Christopher Elliott
a bench sits in the middle of a room © Angus Mordant

Q. I was traveling with a friend to a wedding in Asia in 2018 and decided to make a stopover in Beijing after learning about the new 144-hour visa-free policy. I contacted the Chinese consulate in Chicago, and it confirmed the rule and said that we could travel to Beijing with one airline and have the onward ticket with another one as long as it was to a location outside of China.

On the day of our trip, I showed up at the airport, and American Airlines did not allow me to board the plane. Nobody at the Minneapolis airport knew of any visa-free policy for Beijing or anywhere in China.

I ended up having to buy one-way tickets to Los Angeles on Delta and then one-way tickets to Beijing on Air China. Air China allowed me to board without any problems. I was able to visit Beijing without any difficulties and no previous visa.

When I returned to the United States, I contacted American to request reimbursement for my tickets, which cost $4,007. Unfortunately, American would not even address our request. It just sent generic responses that were infuriating. I have not given up. Airlines have an obligation to be up-to-date on visa requirements. I don’t want other people to fall victim to American Airlines’ ignorance. Can you help?

RODOLFO SOCA, Washington, D.C.

A. I’m sorry you had to rebook your flights to China and that you had to wait almost two years to get a resolution on this case. But I promise we’ll have a resolution by the end of this story.

The final authority for visa rules is Timatic, a visa database published by the International Air Transport Association (www.iatatravelcentre.com/passport-visa-health-travel-document-requirements.htm). It appears, however, that American had its own internal policies that conflicted with the visa rules. This happens every now and then. I recall a case where American denied a passenger boarding because she didn’t have enough time left before her passport expired. She was legal to enter the country, but American still wouldn’t let her board.

If you ever have a question about the validity of your visa, it’s important to check Timatic and find out how the airline will interpret the Timatic information. American happens to take a more conservative approach when it comes to visa and passport rules. I actually support that — better to be safe than sorry — but the key is communicating those policies to your passengers. American didn’t do that.

You did a great job of contacting American by e-mail and arguing your case. It looks as if the airline wasn’t swayed by your arguments. You could also have reached out to an executive at American Airlines. I publish their names, numbers, and e-mail addresses on my consumer advocacy site at www.elliott.org/company-contacts/american-airlines/.

I contacted American on your behalf. It reimbursed you for your new tickets.

Christopher Elliott is the chief advocacy officer of Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps consumers resolve their problems. He can be reached at elliott.org/help or chris@elliott.org.

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