When Keethai Tharmaseelan’s family had their passports stolen from their hotel room during an Arizona vacation last April, Air Canada assured them that their return tickets were enough to fly back to Toronto.
They had no idea of the ordeal that awaited them. On their departure day, the family of four did make it through Phoenix airport security. But just before an Air Canada agent handed them their printed-out boarding passes, another agent came along — and told them it was “illegal under Canadian law” to travel back to Toronto without passports.
“Everyone was telling us their concern was U.S. customs and security letting us through,” she told the Toronto Star.
Tharmaseelan’s family isn’t the first to be unexpectedly grounded thanks to mixed messages from Air Canada staff about missing passports. Last year, a Kelowna, B.C., woman who lost her passport on an Air Canada plane wasn’t allowed to board a return flight from Philadelphia — even though, she told Global News, officials had repeatedly assured her she could.
When Tharmaseelan called the Canadian consulate about her family’s stolen passports, they told her to speak with her airline. An Air Canada rep told her that, because they’d purchased round-trip tickets, all of their information was still logged in Pearson International Airport’s system.
The Canadian consulate also told Tharmaseelan that Pearson would let her, her husband, and their two young children through, as long as security could verify their ID another way.
On April 24, their return date, the family arrived at the airport five hours early. U.S. customs and TSA agents asked more questions than usual, but allowed them into the boarding lounge. When Tharmaseelan explained her family’s situation to the desk agent, he said (as the Air Canada rep assured her) that it wouldn’t be a problem.
Then came other airport staff who thought otherwise.
Tharmaseelan called the emergency passport hotline in Ottawa and was told it is not, in fact, illegal to fly to Canada without a passport.
Nonetheless, the plane left PHX without them.
Air Canada staff told them their only option was to drive to a Canadian consulate in Los Angeles — about six hours away — and get emergency travel documents.
Fortunately, a WestJet agent directed the family to an American Airlines agent, who suggested they could fly as far as Buffalo with their driver’s licences as ID, and booked them in spare seats on their last flight that evening.
Tharmaseelan and her family did eventually make it across the border by land, clearing security with their IDs in about 10 minutes. But most of their luggage had to be left behind when they switched planes.
According to Air Canada spokesperson Peter Armstrong, the airline has followed up and apologized.
“Unfortunately they were given incorrect information with respect to flying without a passport, which U.S. authorities do not allow from their country,” Armstrong said in a statement to the Star.
Armstrong said U.S. rules for air travel are different than for ground travel, and airlines can face heavy fines for violating federal laws on identification.
When Tharmaseelan first called Air Canada about the incident, she was told they’d return the unused portion of their two-way ticket to her in credit — along with a $200 “change fee” that would have made the compensation effectively meaningless.
After Tharmaseelan contacted the Star, Air Canada waived the change fees.
“We are still reviewing how this occurred but recognizing the inconvenience it caused we have waived regular change fees so that the customers can obtain a refund for the unused portions of their tickets,” Armstrong said.
He also said the airline offered an undisclosed “good will gesture.”
Tharmaseelan said she isn’t looking for Air Canada to radically change its policy about return flights without a passport — she just wants it to be enforced consistently.
“So many people along the chain don’t know that’s the policy,” she said.
She and her family are hoping to go back to the U.S. on vacation in August — but perhaps not on an Air Canada flight.
“Yeah, I don’t think we will unless we have to,” Tharmaseelan said.
– With files from Vjosa Isai and Nick Westoll