Changing US Airways Award After Departure?

Reader KG sent me the following message:

I had booked a US Airways award ticket in business class for 90K per person. Our routing was IAH-IST-ZRH (open jaw), BRU-LHR-ICN-PEK (destination) – IAH. We flew the IAH-IST-ZRH legs. We arrived at the Brussels Airport but unfortunately were denied boarding. My wife holds an Indian passport and according to the airport officials needed a UK transit visa even though we were just changing planes and would be at LHR for 2.5 hours.

After we were denied boarding I tried to call US Airways to explain the situation but they said they couldn’t do anything to help re-route, etc (since travel had already commenced). At this point we just decided to visit Amsterdam and I booked a separate award ticket back to Houston. So my question is, do you think there is any point to trying to call or write to US Airways to see if they would return a portion of the miles or allow us to book the segments to/fro Beijing for a later date or do you think it would just be a wasted effort and my time would be better spent trying to accrue more miles? Thanks as always for your advice!

In a follow up message, KG explained that his boarding passes were issued without problem and then his wife was was actually denied boarding at the gate. Apparently the gate called UK immigration, but they didn’t let KG or his wife stand close enough to the phone so they could actually hear anything or talk to the immigration officers. When he asked them to call back they said they were only allowed to call once. Meanwhile he used another phone number to call UK immigration, and they told him that transit was fine as long as she had a Green Card.

US Airways doesn’t allow any changes to award tickets after departure

US Airways has among the most restrictive policies for award changes once travel commences. On paper they don’t let you make any changes whatsoever once travel commences, regardless of the reason.

In practice, US Airways sometimes lets you make changes after departure

So it’s extremely rare, though under severe circumstances I’ve been able to get them to change an itinerary after departure (not for my own travel, though). It may require hanging up and calling again, and for that matter only a supervisor would even consider making the exception. So I would ask for a supervisor immediately if trying to make a change after departure.

If you have a legitimate emergency or immigration issue they’re most likely to make an exception.

Ultimately it’s the passenger’s responsibility to check visa requirements

Most airlines will go over visa requirements for the countries you’re traveling to when booking your itinerary, though at the end of the day it’s the responsibility of the passenger to be sure they have the proper documentation.

One of the very best resources out there for checking visa requirements is the Star Alliance visa tool. It has you enter a few basic details of your trip, and will then let you know what you’ll need to travel.

Star-Alliance-Visa-Tool

Should KG’s wife have been denied boarding?

KG explained to me that he has transited the UK many times in the past on an Indian passport (before he got a US passport) and never had an issue, so he was surprised by this. So I was curious if he was just lucky in the past, or if they actually screwed something up here.

KG‘s wife is a permanent resident of the US on an Indian passport, so I entered that information into the Star Alliance visa tool:

Star-Alliance-Visa-Tool-3

When I enter that information, here’s the visa information I get:

TWOV (Transit Without Visa):
Visa required, except for Passengers who may be granted permission by the Immigration authorities to enter the United Kingdom, for a stay not exceeding 24 hours.

The following conditions must be complied with:

– passengers hold confirmed reservations for an onward flight within 24 hours; and
– continue to a third country; and
– have no purpose in entering the United Kingdom other than to
pass through in transit; and
– hold all documents required for the next destination.
– ***Warning*** Nationals of India may use this administrative concession (TWOV) above if holding:
– a valid U.S. I-551 Permanent Resident Card issued on or after April 21, 1998; or
– an expired I-551 Permanent Resident Card issued on or after April 21, 1998, provided accompanied by a valid I-797 letter authorising the extension, issued by the Bureau of Citizenship; or
– a stand alone U.S. Immigration visa Form 155A/155B

To be clear if she wasn’t a US permanent resident it would be totally different, but KG explained that they showed her Green Card and explained that to the agent.

So unless I’m missing something, I don’t believe KG‘s wife should have been denied boarding. She has a US permanent resident card, an Indian passport, and a 2.5 hour connection in the UK enroute from Belgium to China.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an expert when it comes to visas, so I’m curious if anyone has a different interpretation here? Am I wrong?

If she was incorrectly denied boarding, who is at fault?

Assuming she was incorrectly denied boarding, it’s not really US Airways’ fault that another airline denied her boarding. At the same time, it’s certainly not the passenger’s fault either.

If she was incorrectly denied boarding, someone needs to make things right, and I’ll certainly do what I can to advocate for KG. But this may very well be a cat-and-mouse game, since US Airways will blame Brussels Airlines, and I’m not sure Brussels Airlines will accept blame.

Anyone interpret the transit without visa policy differently? Who do you think is at fault?

Comments

  1. Yep, she was definitely incorrectly denied boarding. I am US citizen and my wife is Russian and holds a green card. She was allowed to enter UK WITH OUT visa even thought she requires one. I read this rule in advance before booking my flight, because I wanted to see some of London and not to pay visa fees and made my connection just over 23 hours.

    The case described in this post was in airport transit which is even less questionable of what we did.

  2. In addition to any remedies against US, KG can claim against Brussels Airlines for denied boarding compensation under EC261/2004. The regulation defines denied boarding as:

    “(j) “denied boarding” means a refusal to carry passengers on a flight, although they have presented themselves for boarding
    under the conditions laid down in Article 3(2), except where there are reasonable grounds to deny them boarding, such as
    reasons of health, safety or security, or inadequate travel documentation;”

    There are no reasonable grounds to deny KG’s wife boarding (SN was wrong in interpreting UK immigration requirements in the way that it did) and so the rider does not apply.

    As against US, US issued the ticket and failed to carry KG’s wife to her final destination (here Beijing). She has a legal remedy against US for breach of contract. It is then up to US to pursue any remedies against SN as being the carrier that wrongly refused boarding.

  3. I recently had an experience with my dad on a US air award ticket. He was traveling to Auckland from Toronto via, LHR, PEK, PVG. The connection at PVG was too tight, he missed the NZ flight.

    CA flight PEK-PVG was delayed a bit but they did not do anything saying that the connection time was too short and not valid. So my dad was basically stranded in PVG.

    I got on the phone with an US airways agent, and explained her the situation. She initially said that she could not change the ticket and that the connection time was not valid as well. However I argued that when I booked the ticket, I was “not informed” about the minimal connection time in PVG and us airways allowed me to book anyway.

    Few minutes later, she booked him on the next day flight.

    I would say I lucked out, on the agent being nice and the fact that I said MCT was not stated when I booked the award ticket.

  4. Compspy, the regulations for Russian passport holders are different from those for Indian passport holders.

    Russia: visa not required for airside transit (and 24h visa may be granted on arrival for landside transit):
    https://www.gov.uk/check-uk-visa/y/russia/transit/no

    India: visa is required for airside transit:
    https://www.gov.uk/check-uk-visa/y/india/transit/no

    However, while visa is normally required, there are some exceptions, including for US green card holders.

    So it looks like KG’s wife was incorrectly denied boarding because the airline personnel failed to realize that US green card gives her an exemption from visa requirement.

  5. Lucky, slightly offtopic question…

    In March my wife and I booked USDM *A 100K to Europe to get to CDG. Our outbound is SFO-ATL-YYZ-CDG. We depart May 3.

    Yesterday the ATL-YYZ leg canceled. We were rebooked on the only other AC flight that day — which departs BEFORE the SFO-ATL flight departs.

    What is my best bet for salvaging our trip? (My wife is very unhappy with me using miles instead of just buying a ticket.) Do you think we can ask US to accommodate us SFO-PHL-CDG or SFO-CLT-CDG on US metal? What about AA metal?

    If we fix the outbound with US metal, do we have to change the return, too? It’s VIE-ORD-SFO and definitely worth keeping.

  6. I recently flew a US Airways award. While in Nepal I got very sick and was hospitalized. I was in the hospital on the day I was to depart for a my stopover. Since I had already flown one leg US Airways refused to change my flight. My insurance even called. I sent a message via Twitter. I did not have medical clearance to even fly at that point. I was no disappointed, yet I knew that there were knew changes after departure. I was just hoping for an exception and maybe a little compassion. Or even half my miles back. In the end I gave up my stopover in Beijing and my business seat home. My insurance paid for me to fly United economy row 50 something home. I was just happy to be going home at that point.

  7. I also think the BRU authorities incorrectly denied boarding to KG’s wife. I think they have a case here but I also think it’ll be a cat/mouse game. I haven’t read all the terms & conditions of their reward ticket so my interpretation is solely based on what KG wrote above.

    Whenever I travel abroad to a new country that is off the tourist beaten path, I always print out the visa entry rules of that country from an official source and have the printed paper with me. In KG’s case, he could have gone to this site:
    https://www.gov.uk/check-uk-visa/y/india/transit/no
    and print this out and make sure to highlight KG’s wife’s green card. Of course this is all in hindsight but it is definitely a good idea and one that can save one hours of hassle/stress.

  8. @Joey, I 100% agree with you on this. It really is the passenger’s responsibility to make sure the Visa requirement is met, and to bring the official rules with him, in case the airline’s staff are not up to speed on such things. It is just a good measure to take for the traveler’s own protection.

    Last year we traveled to Stockholm, open jaw to pick up the itinerary at Moscow, on a DL award. Our HKSAR passports allow visiting Russia for 14 days without Visa. I printed out the web page of the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong that details this reciprocal benefit between the citizens of HKSAR and Russia. I also printed the related Visa and Health page from DL website and highlighted the exceptions.
    While I never needed to show such pages but I felt more secured bringing those with us, especially for traveling to Russia, not to mention that we entered the country by land with border crossing long distance bus from Tallinn to St. Petersburg. I was all ready to show the officer those papers when he was flipping thru our passports trying to find Visa. To his credit, when he could not find one, he just turned to his computer. After tapping about 10 minutes, he then proceeded to stamp our passports and that little pieces paper of paper for entry and exit… whew! We were questioned a little bit at Moscow immigration on our way from SVO to CDG. That was when the color print out of DL’s tickets came in handy!

  9. This is clearly unacceptable and I would complain to both airlines! Given how much havoc & expenses this caused, I’d think US should refund all the miles.

  10. Unfortunately for KG, the wife was NOT incorrectly denied boarding. The wording of UK immigration law is extremely confusing on this issue, but this interpretation is the correct one.

    There are two ways for Indians to transit via the UK without a visa.

    a) Landside transit
    b) Airside transit

    The requirements for each of these are very subtly different, but basically it boils down to landside TWOV is an administrative concession on a case-by-case basis, while airside TWOV is a policy concession applied to a specific set of qualified travelers.

    HOWEVER, the requirements for airside TWOV require that the traveler is in transit TO/FROM the USA, Canada, Australia or New Zealand (whichever issued the qualifying visa/residence permit that qualifies them for the TWOV exemption). THAT CONDITION DOES NOT APPEAR TO HAVE BEEN MET IN THIS CASE (they were flying BRU-LHR-ICN-PEK), therefore the airside TWOV exemption was correctly denied.

    The landside TWOV exemption (bizarrely) does not have this requirement, BUT it is administered on a case-by-case basis rather as a blanket policy program. An airline is advised to contact CIO at POE to obtain an OKTB prior to boarding a potential TWOV passenger. No reference number is provided for denied concessions, but reference numbers are generated for OKTBs (to guard against Section 40 penalties that may occur later).

    I’ve unfortunately had to deny boarding to dozens of passengers in similar situations to the OPs wife over the years. Yes, the regulations are confusing and yes, many airline staff (especially those who are not specifically document security trained) won’t even notice the difference between the policy requirements, but this is unfortunately the law that we have to comply with. The airline is not at fault (other than for failing to explain this clearly to KG).

  11. @ scott — Given the circumstances I think it’s reasonable to request that US Airways accommodate you on their metal for the outbound. You should be able to keep the return, and I don’t think they have a way of opening up space on American, unfortunately.

  12. Sean above is actually correct. Her being denied bosrding is valid. I am on an indian passport with a work permit and gave transited Heathrow many times with no issues. No visa needed as long as your travel is back to the US and you have a valid US visa. She wasnt traveling to the US…hence visa needed to transit UK. That being said…everyone should just avoid Heathrow anyways!

  13. Sean, her tix was Iah rt with stopovers. The regulations don’t deal with stopovers, etc. she got screwed over by the agent. It is what it is, but you need to look at the totality of the ticket, not a few day stopover.

  14. @Leftpinky – No, you don’t look at the totality of the ticket. You look at the first point at which the passenger will spend at least 24 hours.

    I’m not saying it makes sense. I’m just saying that this is what the regulations are and the airline should not be blamed because they are forced to comply with regulations. The airlines hate it as much as the passengers – nobody wants to dispatch a flight with an empty seat and leave the planned occupant of the seat behind to argue with you!!!

    I will admit that I am very surprised that the CIO did not grant an OKTB under the circumstances. That is a very rare situation for a US PR holder and in virtually every case that I have hitherto seen it has been due to adverse prior immigration history. Has KG’s wife previously been denied a UK visa of any type for whatever reason? Has she previously overstayed (in reality or via poor documentary capture) a UK Leave To Enter? Does she have SIS hits (very unlikely as she is already inside the EU)? Whatever the reason was though, the default is no-go in her situation and the possible (usually routine) exemption was not granted.

  15. Hello Everyone – First of all I really appreciate Lucky’s time and effort in creating this blog post about my situation. I also appreciate all the comments from everyone. Just thought I would follow up to Sean’s comment:

    My wife has never been to the UK or applied for any type of UK visa in the past.

  16. @KG – Thanks for clarifying. As I said before, it is unusual that the TWOV administrative concession was not granted in that case, but the fact remains that it is discretionary.

    If the airline legitimately spoke to UK Immigration and the TWOV was denied, they prima facie acted appropriately. However, I struggle to see why the CIO would deny TWOV based on the info you have provided. It is possible they referred it to the local RALON rep in Brussels for an advisory (not sure if there is still an ALO/ILM based in Brussels), which could explain the negative (they are more likely to give negative advisories in my experience than the CIO). Can you confirm that your wife had a valid I-551 (Green Card) physically in her possession? And a valid Chinese Visa stamped in her passport?

    I just re-read the relevant sections of my old manual (“Carrier’s Guide to Document Checks” published by the erstwhile UKBA) on this subject. It is pretty clear – the carrier is authorised to deny boarding to TWOV passengers if they do not “genuinely believe” that the passenger intends merely to pass though the United Kingdom in transit to a third country where they are clearly admissable.

    Sorry I’m not the bearer of better news, but any escalation with either US Airways or Brussels Airlines will likely get you nowhere (other than any goodwill gestures).

  17. Hello Sean – Thanks for your detailed reply. Yes, I can confirm that she has a valid permanent resident card as well as a visa to enter China.

    As far as who exactly Brussels airlines called, I cannot be totally sure (whether it was LHR CIO or a local rep) As Lucky mentioned in the post, they did not let me hear in on the conversation and when I requested them to call again they said it was not possible because they would be fined heavily…

  18. “KG explained that they showed her Green Card and explained that to the agent.” As others have stated U.S. green card holders do not need a visa for transit travel in the U.K. (under 24 hrs.)

  19. Not sure if that UK immigration page is definitive, but it doesn’t state the combined requirement of also currently traveling to/from the US for residence permit holders, only for those who have a visa. Since the page does not specifically state whether all or just one of the requirements must be met, I note that it is impossible for all the requirements to be met, so it must logically only require one of the situations in order to be exempt from the airside TWOV stated on the page.

    As such, still seems KG’s wife should have been allowed to board. If airside TWOV is a regular policy concession, then it seems SN misapplied the rules. There is no need for a call to CIO as it is a policy concession, not case by case. The valid green card permit qualifies her for the exemption, and there is no indication on UK Immigration’s site that a green card holder must be traveling to/from the US.

  20. Two countries to avoid transit for third world passport holders: Canada and UK. I really don’t understand their silly and extremely strict rules about transit. They simply think their country is the best so all the third world people will die to escape from airport when transiting…their airport and airline companies are looking so much. Never flew air Canada because of this, never use ba when transiting to a control other than us.

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