Conflicting Visa Information Creates Confusion

January 19, 2017

in Odds & Ends Stories

I’m writing this in the hopes that people don’t get burned by British Airways like we got burned by them. I believe my experience with BA customer service reveals an airline which does not hold itself accountable when it screws up. If you have an option, do not fly British. Because of bad information given out by British Airways, my fiancé and I almost lost a trip to South Africa. In the end, we only ended up losing $1000, and we received zero compensation. Here’s what happened:

Last summer, Holly and I decided to visit her home country of South Africa. We’re living in the United States, working on our master’s degrees and earning graduate student stipends, which means we don’t make a lot of money. Still, Holly hadn’t seen her family in over three years, and I wanted to meet them before we announced our engagement.

We bought two tickets with BA, around $1000 each, flying from Miami to Johannesburg in December of 2016. When she bought the ticket, Holly knew to check to see if she needed a visa. South African passports require a lot of visas, and so she knew to check for even the little details. Did she need a visa to transit through Heathrow airport? To be clear: she checked to see if she needed to apply for a visa, pay the fees, etc., just so that she could walk from one gate in Heathrow to another gate in Heathrow, spending less than ten hours in the British airport.

The BA website directed her to another website, IATA Travel, which asked her to input all her passport and ticketing information, which she did. (She and I have revisited this form again and again, inputted the exact information she used back in the summer when she bought the ticket, and have gotten the same results – the site says she does not need a visa.) The information provided by the IATA Travel website was very specific. It said she did not require a transit visa. (Here’s the exact language given by British Airways: “Passengers transiting only are exempt from holding a visa when: Passengers holding confirmed onward tickets making an airside transit at London Gatwick (LGW), London Heathrow (LHR) or Manchester (MAN) on the same calendar day to a third country (excluding Ireland (Rep.)).”)

Great, but then in late November Holly and I were making final preparations for our trip and Holly decided to email British Airways and ask, specifically, to double-check that she definitely did not need to get a transit visa. BA responded, saying she should check with the British Consulate. Cue a bunch of phone calls and conflicting information, some of which agreed with the IATA website, some of which said she did in fact need a visa. This was the first time we heard British Airways say, “Proper visa information is entirely the responsibility of the traveler.”

I finally called BA in the Miami airport, and they said that she wouldn’t be let on the plane. We did not have time to mail off her passport. (Whole separate racket: the bizarre entity which exists in New York and which is responsible for giving you an “airside transit visa”- won’t get into it, suffice it to say that if you had any sense you would not send off your passport to these people. One of the questions in their FAQ is, “What happened to my passport?”)

We panicked of course, and called British Airways customer service again, telling them she wouldn’t make her flight to London, but that she would be able to fly on the return leg from Johannesburg to Miami. No… she wouldn’t. BA customer service kindly informed us that the entire booking (meaning my whole ticket, there and back, and hers, there and back) would be lost if she didn’t get on the first flight – but we were in luck! Because we called, BA offered to separate the booking so that I could fly, and that only her ticket would be lost completely. But what about the bad information we said. What about the fact that an official website, to which you are directed by the BA homepage, told us she did not need a visa? “We are not responsible,” they said again.

So what about everything else? If you get on a British Airways flight which is advertised at the gate as heading for Madrid, must you contact air traffic control and double-check with them that the British Airways flight you are on is, in fact, heading for Madrid? Let’s say that air traffic control tells you that the British Airways airplane you are on is in fact heading for Barbados, not Madrid, and you get off and go right up to the BA customer service desk. Let’s say you tell them that the information you received was erroneous. They will tell you the same thing they told me: “The passenger is responsible for proper information.”

A final slap to the face came when I went to check in for my flight to London and connection to South Africa. At the desk they told me I needed a visa to visit South Africa. This was straight-up bad information once again. I told them, “No, Americans do not need a visa to visit South Africa, they are in fact issued a 90-day visa upon entering the country.” But the ticket agent repeated that I did need a visa because the computer was telling her I needed a visa. I demanded she contact a superior, which she did, and ultimately, without apologizing, this British Airways employee issued me my boarding pass.

Please think twice before choosing British Airways.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Zombie January 20, 2017 at 12:48 am

There is one source of valid information about what visas are required — the government requiring the visas. I might look on-line at some of these sites prior to planning travel, but when I book the travel, I contact the consulate or embassy to see if a visa is required.

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Beth January 20, 2017 at 10:22 am

Was just about to post the same thing. Websites can have outdated information so the actual country is the only one that's accurate.

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Frequentflyer February 5, 2017 at 7:08 am

I understand that this was frustrating but it is the responsibility of the passenger to check regarding visas., Especially if, as you say, she already knew that a South African citizen requires visas to many countries.

Also, the canceling if the entire ticket if you don't use the first leg is not a specific British airways rule, it's a rule followed by all (or maybe most) airlines

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RedHead0186 February 8, 2017 at 2:10 pm

I can't say for all airlines, but I've definitely experience the 'cancel the entire ticket if you don't use part of the first leg' issue with US airlines. Wanted to fly to Detroit, but a direct flight to DTW was more expensive than a flight that had a layover in DTW and then flew to Flint. Asked if we could book the flight to Flint and then just not get on the plan to Flint, and it was explained that if we did that we'd lose the rest of our reservation, including the return flights.

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