Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sometimes I consider flooding my wardrobe with DC-related clothing. I could walk around in "I heart DC" or FBI shirts and hats. I could get a whole bunch of them because they're dirt cheap, and everyone would think I was a tourist, which would amuse me for a while. Kate might not find it as funny.

To get back to an older topic, here's the letter I wrote to United Airlines after not being able to fly:
I recently had an unpleasant experience with your service.

I intended to travel last Friday (February 12th, 9:30am) from Washington, Dulles to Chicago and then to Vietnam. I had a round-trip ticket to return from Vietnam 8 days later. In Dulles on Friday morning I was not allowed to get a boarding pass because my passport expires in 5 months, while apparently there is a regulation that requires a traveler's passport be valid for 6 months.

After my rejection, I visited the "additional services" counter where I tried to explain my problem to the worker to get more information about this regulation. She didn't see a problem with my passport and began to check me in until the manager walked past and accused me of attempting to sneak onto my flight using a knowingly invalid passport. I was only looking for more information regarding this regulation and the manager for some reason assumed a malicious intent. Regarding the 6-month regulation, the manager told me that United uses a very special subscription-only system that tells them all the regulations. When asked how a passenger is supposed to know about these regulations, he said that it could be found over the internet, or the Vietnam Embassy would have told me had I asked them.

I am upset about two things:
-being treated like a spy when I was only trying to get information about a regulation, and
-that my trip to Vietnam has been delayed and my vacation plans mostly-ruined due to a United Airline regulation that I could not possibly have anticipated.

This regulation is not posted anywhere. The website states "In compliance with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, all passengers traveling by air to or from the United States are required to hold a valid passport. This requirement applies to all passengers, including U.S. citizens, traveling to and from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean." No regulations are given about needing a passport to be valid for the 6-months following your flight.

The Department of State webpage states "Some countries require that your passport be valid at least six (6) months beyond the dates of your trip. Some airlines will not allow you to board if this requirement is not met." The Vietnam Embassy webpage states as a requirement for travel: "Original PASSPORT (which requires at least 01 month validity prior the date of exit from Vietnam and/or 06 month validity to meet airlines requirements)."

The Vietnam Embassy gave me a visa for my passport without any problems. Presumably, they saw its expiration date.

I would like a citation of where I can find this regulation requiring a traveller's passport to be valid for 6 month after entering a destination country. Otherwise, if 6-months validity is a special requirement of United Airlines, beyond the requirements of Vietnam, then a notice should be provided to travelers.

Joe Schell
Washington, DC

Here is United's reply:
Dear Mr. Schell:

I am sorry to hear of your disappointment when attempting to check in for travel to Vietnam on February 12. Documentation requirements can be obtained by contacting a United agent at 800-538-2929 prior to departure. Our source of information is a travel directory called Timatic. Timatic is the industry standard used by airlines and travel agents to be compliant with border control rules and regulations. It delivers personalized information based on a guest's destination, transit points, nationality, travel document, and residence country. Timatic is a mainframe application and is accessed via airline reservation or departure control systems.

While I understand the predicament you experienced, the responsibility to secure proper documentation rests with the traveler. Airlines must be sure that you carry that documentation so that you may gain entry to the country you have traveled to. Guests lacking proper documentation are required to return to their point of origin and the airline almost always faces a fine. When traveling internationally, it is best to verify document requirements with the nearest consulate of the country to be visited. As you have indicated, the website for Vietnam states that your passport must have 6 months validity to satisfy airline requirements. Further clarifications could have been obtained by contacting the embassy or an agent of the airline.

I am sorry to learn from you that you felt you were being treated as a spy. Our employees should provide professional service. You report that my colleague's reaction let you down. I am forwarding your comments to the Washington station manager to work to ensure the situation does not happen again. Mr. Schell, your feedback makes a difference. It lets us know what we need to consider in order to earn your future friendship and support.


Lynn Mc Poland
United Airlines Customer Relations

So apparently if you call United's international phone number, instead of the domestic number, you can get travel documentation requirements. Good to know. The operator at the domestic number definitely didn't know anything about passports when I called.

She says "as you have indicated, the website for Vietnam states that your passport must have 6 months validity to satisfy airline requirements" but that is not what I indicated, nor is it what the Vietnam Embassy website says. It says "01 month validity prior the date of exit from Vietnam and/or 06 month validity to meet airlines requirements".

Saying "and/or" is not the same as saying "and". Generally, it means "or" but possibly "and" depending on another condition. So unless the Vietnam Embassy webpage is written by someone who hasn't mastered English (which is possible), it is saying that the 6 month requirement is a possibility but depends on your airline. I therefore still believe it is United's responsibility to post this regulation.

Other than that miscommunication, I think Lynn wrote a very professional response.

(Jeff Vogel, about the winter olympics)
Also, if some young, strapping lad has spent his short life wrecking his body to be best at something that is almost surgically absent of interest, I'm not going to be the one to tell him that his sport sucks beyond redemption.

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