An Air Canada mistake caused me to be detained in Korea – for two weeks!

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

An Air Canada agent made a mistake that set off a terrible chain of events for Sarahy Sigie during the dark days of the pandemic. The end result? Sarahy was detained in South Korea for 15 days against her will and at her own expense.

Sarahy and her husband asked our advocacy team to convince Air Canada to pay for its representative’s mistake. But at a time when the carrier was routinely refusing to refund passengers even when required to do so, that was a tall order.

I’ve reported on some pretty egregious happenings across the travel industry during the coronavirus pandemic. However, after reading about Sarahy’s experience, I think you’ll agree that her tale is the worst of all.

Flying to Hong Kong during a pandemic

In the fall of 2020, Sarahy was putting the finishing touches on her plans to join her husband in Hong Kong. She had been visiting the U.S. on a temporary visa (she holds a Mexican passport). The expiration date of that visa was quickly approaching, and Sarahy knew it was time to conclude her trip.

The coronavirus was making her travel planning particularly difficult. Tourism to Hong Kong was out of the question, and the entry requirements for other travelers were changing rapidly. But Sarahy knew that with the proper documentation, as the spouse of a resident, she was eligible to enter.

After much research, Sarahy determined that Air Canada offered the best itinerary. It had the shortest travel time and the best price. She booked the trip and then set about making sure that everything was in order for the journey.

Unfortunately, as the saying goes, the best-laid plans…

Problems at the Air Canada check-in counter

On the day that she stepped up to the Air Canada check-in counter, Sarahy didn’t anticipate any problems. She would fly from Seattle to Hong Kong with a short layover in Vancouver.

But she was in for a cruel dose of reality. Sometimes things can go terribly wrong even with the most diligent planning.

Handing over her travel documents, Sarahy was aware that there would likely be extra scrutiny because of her final destination. But all her research prepared her for the scrutiny. She knew that she possessed the necessary documentation to enter Hong Kong.

What she wasn’t prepared for was an Air Canada employee who, for some reason, was unable to recognize her valid travel documents.

She waited for the agent to take her luggage, give her a boarding pass and direct her to the gate.

Standing patiently at the Air Canada counter, Sarahy soon became aware that there seemed to be a problem. The representative looked at her passport, itinerary, and other documents and walked away from the desk.

Sarahy began to get a very uncomfortable feeling.

The initial mistake by Air Canada: Denied boarding

When the Air Canada agent returned, she announced that Sarahy was being denied boarding. The representative told her that she didn’t have the proper travel documents and could not take the flight.

Sarahy tried to explain to the Air Canada agent that she was making a mistake, but to no avail.

When the agent appeared to be dismissing her, Sarahy walked away from the counter in defeat.

Sarahy called her husband, Eugene. She told him about the mistake that the Air Canada agent had just made. He sprang into action and contacted the carrier. Receiving no immediate response, Eugene turned his sights on arranging a new flight for his wife. He planned to fix the problem with Air Canada later.

Unfortunately, the new itinerary only compounded Sarahy’s problems, leading to a more awful outcome than being denied boarding.

Delta Air Lines comes to the rescue?

Part of the entry requirements to Hong Kong included a 72-hour negative coronavirus test. So Eugene knew that he needed to get his wife on a flight quickly before her test expired.

Eugene called Delta Air Lines.  He booked his wife on a journey that would depart just a few hours later than her original one. Now she would transit through South Korea and then on to Hong Kong. Soon Sarahy was standing at the check-in counter of Delta Air Lines with those same documents in hand. The Delta Air Lines agent took a look at the papers, checked her luggage and handed her a boarding pass.

At the gate, an agent scanned her boarding pass and waved her on to the aircraft.

Success! (or maybe not)

Triumphantly, Sarahy stepped onto the plane. Despite all confusion earlier in the day, things were going to be OK after all, she thought.

Relaxing into her seat, Sarahy closed her eyes — secure in the notion that she would soon see her husband.

While Sarahy slept, she was oblivious to the terrible situation that awaited her in South Korea.

But soon, she would wake up to a traveler’s worst nightmare.

This negative coronavirus test is not valid for travel to Hong Kong

Landing in Seoul after the 12-hour flight from Seattle, Sarahy gathered her belongings and left the plane. Now, after a brief layover, she would board the four-hour flight to Hong Kong.

The unpleasantness of the previous day at the Air Canada counter was becoming a distant memory.

Unfortunately, a new and more shocking problem was about to come to light.

Sarahy heard her name announced at the gate for her connecting flight (also on Delta Air Lines). She made her way over to the agent, who bluntly explained that Sarahy’s negative coronavirus test was no longer valid. As a result, she was ineligible to enter Hong Kong and could not board the aircraft. She needed to return to the U.S. or go into immediate quarantine in South Korea for 15 days.

Sarahy could not believe her ears. In less than 24 hours, she had been denied boarding by two different airlines for two different reasons. All she wanted was to get home to be with her husband, but it had become a nearly impossible task.

Fact: Awful things happen when a traveler has incorrect documentation for international travel

Sarahy felt tears well up in her eyes, and she says that the agents laughed at her predicament.

“Those agents laughed at my wife and told her to stop being a baby,” Eugene says. “Understandably, she was distraught and they were cruel to her.”

We know that when a passenger lands in a foreign country without proper documentation, the airline must return them to their original starting point.

However, in this case, Delta Air Lines could not return Sarahy to Seattle because her U.S. visa had expired. She was not eligible to re-enter the U.S.

Stuck in Korea: No way to go forward and no way to go back.

The smiling agents asked Sarahy what she planned to do next. The truth was that she had no idea. Now she was stuck in South Korea with no way to go forward and no way to go back.

When Eugene discovered his wife’s newest troubles, he called and then wrote to Delta Air Lines’ CEO’s office.

My wife is currently stuck in Seoul, South Korea, on her way to Hong Kong. The reason they detained her in the transit zone is that her negative COVID-19 test expired.

H.K. requires people entering the city to have a 72-hour negative test.  She had that, but due to time zone differences and no direct flights, she had to go through Seoul. [Her arrival time passed] the 72 hour cutoff time.

So now she is stuck at the airport with no viable solution. The staff at the airport do not want to pay for her 14-day quarantine. What are you going to do to help??

Eugene to Delta Air Lines

Unfortunately, Eugene soon found out what our readers already know. If you land in a foreign country without the proper documentation, the airline is only responsible for taking you back where you came from — but for Sarahy this wasn’t possible.

Fact: It’s always the passenger’s responsibility to have all valid entry documents

Although Eugene received several responses from Delta’s executive offices, the message was clear: Sarahy was on her own.

Please know it is the customer’s responsibility to ensure that they have the appropriate items to travel to a country. They should be checking for Hong Kong travel as well as on the Delta website. Keep in mind due to Covid 19, with these regulations changing hourly/daily. It really is up to the customer to ensure that they have what they need to travel. We must respectfully decline your request for financial compensation.

I’m very sorry but must advise you again that we are unable to assist Sarahy. The traveler is responsible for being aware and complying with all travel restrictions. Unfortunately, we are unable to assist them if they are stuck during transit due to such restrictions.

Delta Air Lines to Eugene

Delta Air Lines: “You could stay in the airport lounge for two weeks.”

The Delta executive suggested that Sarahy could quarantine in the airport’s transit lounge for two weeks or more. (Think: the 2004 Tom Hanks’ movie The Terminal).

Alternatively, Eugene could pay for his wife to stay in the hotel in the airport’s transit area for 15 days. But the executive warned that at any time, Hong Kong could declare South Korea a high Covid zone. If that happened, Sarahy would not be permitted to join him even at the end of her quarantine. She could be stuck indefinitely in South Korea.

Eugene says he found it hard to believe that Delta Air Lines was not willing to help his wife. Faced with no other choice, he booked his wife a 15-night stay at the transit hotel inside the Seoul airport. Sarahy entered lockdown in South Korea and hoped for the best.

Then Eugene turned his sights on Air Canada, whose initial mistake caused all the subsequent problems.

“Air Canada made a big mistake and now my wife is stuck in Korea!”

Of course, if a foreign country detains your wife for weeks because of a mistake by an airline employee, it’s natural to be upset. However, when I took a look at Eugene’s paper trail with Air Canada, it was clear that he hadn’t read my article about how to get excellent customer service when trying to solve a problem with a company. (Although in this case, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference.)

 Incompetent Air Canada employees turned my wife away. They denied boarding to her, and set in motion a series of unfortunate events. So what is the real reason they did not allow her to board her flight? Racism? Sexism? Plain incompetence? Now — she’s stuck in a transit zone, what can she do? She’s nowhere near her final destination — for two weeks! What is Air Canada going to do to correct his mistake? The Delta Air Lines’ agents told my wife she should sleep in the airport lounge for two weeks. They humiliated her and treated her like a dog.

But all of this is Air Canada’s fault.

Are you going to rescue her from Seoul and bring her to Hong Kong?

Eugene to Air Canada

The answer to Eugene’s last desperate question, of course, was no. Air Canada was not going to rescue Sarahy from her lockdown in Korea and deliver her to Eugene.

Although their team expressed concern for Sarahy’s current predicament, it placed all the blame on her. The Air Canada executive told Eugene that the agent denied his wife boarding because his wife didn’t have an ETA. In the absence of that document, she could not transit Canada.

Asking our advocacy team for help

But was that really true?

After weeks of frustrating back and forth exchanges with Air Canada, Eugene finally decided to enlist the help of our advocacy team.

When his request for help hit my desk, the couple had already been reunited. Sarahy had completed her 15 days of government-imposed quarantine in South Korea. After completing the lockdown, Sarahy finally made it to Hong Kong — two weeks after her journey began.

Now all that remained of the fiasco were horrible memories and nearly $4,000 in unexpected expenses.

My wife ended up stranded for two weeks at the Seoul airport. Air Canada denied her boarding because of their incompetence. Now it refuses to take responsibility or even offer compensation for the hotel. Is there anything you can do to help?

Eugene to Michelle

What does the paper trail say?

Of particular interest in Eugene’s paper trail were the repetitive notes from the executive team of Air Canada that indicated the Sarahy didn’t have permission to transit Canada. The carrier wasn’t responsible because the agent claimed Sarahy didn’t have an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA).

But Sarahy’s passport and paper trail told a different story.

The Government of Canada issues an ETA to a traveler after they complete an online form. Although the process is easy, many international travelers are unaware of their need for an ETA when transiting Canada. (Note: U.S. citizens do not need an ETA.)

But Sarahy was aware and when I looked at her documentation, it was clear she had applied for and received an ETA in June 2019. Her ETA was valid and tied to her current passport electronically until June 2024.

An ETA mistake by Air Canada

So why did Eugene keep getting this type of response from the Air Canada team that just repeated the agent’s mistake?

I have received information from the check-in agent present when Sarahy checked in for the flight to Hong Kong with a transit in Vancouver, Canada. To transit in Canada, passengers need an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) from the Government of Canada  linked to their passport. A traveler obtains the ETA by applying online.

The agent provided this information to your wife, but she was not holding this document, and because of this, we could not accept her for the flight. I know this may seem harsh but had we accepted her, when traveling with insufficient documents, customers are subject to deportation and their trip ends at the point where the documents are required. Airlines are also then imposed fines for accepting customers with insufficient travel documents.

This would explain why Delta could accept her on the flight to Seoul with the same entry documents for Hong Kong and we could not. 

As goodwill, Air Canada will refund the unused ticket.

Air Canada to Eugene

Air Canada made a mistake, this passenger had a valid ETA

It was time to find out.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Air Canada has been a tough airline to deal with. In fact, sometime early on, the carrier started to blatantly ignore the Department of Transportation’s rules about refunding passengers.

Even when the airline canceled a passenger’s flight, it began to issue vouchers automatically. We received many requests for help from disgruntled Air Canada customers who had been the recipients of these unwanted vouchers. Air Canada remained silent about this practice. (That is until Nov. 2021, when the Department of Transportation fined Air Canada and put an end to this practice.)

Given the difficulties our team had been having with Air Canada’s lack of response, I wasn’t sure that we could help Sarahy. But having just successfully mediated another denied boarding mistake that seemed hopeless, I may have been feeling a bit overly confident that Air Canada would want to make things right for Sarahy, too.

We have one of your passengers over here that appears to have been denied boarding in error by Air Canada in the United States. Unfortunately, that mistake set off a chain of terrible events for this traveler, Sarahy. I see from her paper trail that you are already familiar with the case. In the paper trail, you told her that she was denied boarding because she didn’t have an ETA to transit Canada on her way to Hong Kong. But she did have an ETA, according to the documents I have here. The Canadian government approved her ETA on June 19 — validating it until June 2024. The Canadian government ties that to her passport electronically, so I’m unclear how the Air Canada agents determined she didn’t have an ETA.

As I think you know, she then was forced to buy another airline ticket and fly on Delta through Seoul, where she was detained for two weeks because her negative COVID test expired by the time she landed in Korea. I understand that Air Canada refunded her airfare. Still, I believe that some of her additional expenses, including the last minute airfare on Delta and housing expenses in Korea during her quarantine, can be directly attributed to the original Air Canada mistake.

Michelle to Air Canada

Air Canada offers a “full and final” offer for its agent’s mistake

I forwarded the receipts for Sarahy’s forced quarantine ($2,400) and the Delta flight ($800) and some other expenses. I also asked that Air Canada pay Sarahy the involuntarily denied boarding compensation required by the Air Passengers Rights Regulation in Canada.

Without admitting to any mistake by its agent, Air Canada soon sent the couple its “final offer.”

Now the Air Canada team agreed to refund the ticket, split the hotel expenses for Sarahy ($1,000) and pay $500 toward the new Delta ticket. This offer, which the team called a goodwill gesture, also included a $1,000 Air Canada e-voucher.

But…

We have thoroughly reviewed your claim for compensation under Air Passenger Protection Regulations for Denied Boarding and rejected it. We are confident in our decision.

Air Canada

Unsure about the accuracy of that last part of Air Canada’s email, I contacted our friends at the Canadian Transportation Agency.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, the Air Passenger Protection Regulation says “refused transport” is different from being denied boarding. Sarahy was refused transport because the agent mistakenly believed she didn’t have the correct travel documentation. Being denied boarding only has to do with an airline overselling a flight according to the CTA.

The Canadian Transportation Agency will determine if Air Canada is responsible for this mistake

Although the outcome is the same for the passenger who is denied boarding as the passenger who is refused transport, one compels the airline to pay a hefty compensation to the traveler. The other does not. The CTA promised to investigate Sarahy’s case to determine if Air Canada acted in good faith. However, the regulation would not require denied boarding compensation.

Still, I thought Air Canada should do more for its passenger who was denied boarding through no fault of her own. So I sent a few more follow-ups to my first request, asking that Air Canada consider what happened to its passenger because of its agent’s mistake — and the additional expenses. If Air Canada had not denied Sarahy boarding in error, she would have traveled as planned to Hong Kong on that day.

Unfortunately, all of my additional emails to Air Canada went unanswered.

Eugene and Sarahy know that one thing is for sure — they will never use that $1,000 e-voucher from Air Canada.

Good news update: Air Canada will pay for this mistake

Right after we first published this article in Jan. 2021, Eugene sent one last request to Air Canada. Inexplicably, this time there was a new attitude — Air Canada’s response was unusually receptive. In the end, their team agreed to pay the entire hotel bill for Sarahy’s unplanned two-week stay in South Korea.

Hello Eugene! Thank you for contacting me. We would be happy to resolve this for you and as goodwill and to settle this matter amicably, we are offering a full and final settlement (below).

Executive contact at Air Canada
  • 2492600 South Korean won (approximately $2400.00 USD equivalent) for the Transit hotel in Korea – cash by cheque or local transfer in Hong Kong
  • $500.00 USD – cash by cheque or local transfer in Hong Kong
  • $1000.00 CAD electronic eCoupon (Air Canada)

This was really great news because if the couple had relied on the Canadian Transportation Agency to force Air Canada to do the right thing here they would have had a long, long wait… 

Two years later the Canadian Transportation Agency responds

On Sept. 20, 2022, two years after Sarahy was detained in Korea for two weeks because of the mistake by Air Canada, her complaint finally appeared in front of the Canadian Transportation Agency. 

Had Air Canada not already decided to pay all of Sarahy’s expenses and apologize, this response would have been terribly disappointing. In its summary of her experience, the CTA determined that Air Canada wasn’t responsible for her detainment or additional expenses. 

This is further to your air travel complaint 20-68354 filed with the Canadian Transportation Agency (Agency) about the difficulties you encountered with Air Canada in August 2020.

As mentioned in our intro email, as part of the facilitation review, we brought your concerns to the carrier’s attention for a further review, Air Canada has responded that while its position to the Agency remains unchanged as it considers this flight disruption to be a refusal to transport, it has, however, reached an agreement with you directly that has resolved this complaint.

It is important to note that denied boarding has a strict definition in Canada under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR) where section 3 states that “for the purpose of these Regulations, there is a denial of boarding when a passenger is not permitted to occupy a seat on board a flight because the number of seats that may be occupied on the flight is less than the number of passengers who have checked in by the required time, hold a confirmed reservation and valid travel documentation and are present at the boarding gate at the required boarding time.” As you did not complete your check-in and the flight departed with available seats, this flight disruption would be considered a refusal to transport and not a denial of boarding. 

In addition, the additional expenses incurred while in Seoul, South Korea was a result of a new contract of carriage with Delta and entered into by you that did not begin or end in Canada.  The Agency’s authority does not extend to tickets where the contract of carriage does not originate or terminate in Canada. As your contract of carriage did not originate or terminate in Canada, we were unable to review the expense issues addressed in your complaint.

It would appear that this complaint was resolved using the services of Michelle Couch Friedman and we will mark the facilitation request as complete.

This concludes the informal facilitation of your complaint.

Principal Facilitator, Canadian Transportation Agency (Sept. 20, 2022)

Here’s how to make sure you avoid international detainment because of incorrect documentation

Although traveler’s getting detained in foreign countries isn’t a complaint we frequently receive, it does happen. (See: Welcome to Switzerland. Now you’re going to jail!)

Here are some tips to ensure you don’t end up blindsided at the airport check-in counter — or worse, at a transit point or your destination.

  • Visit the website of the U.S. State Department
    Every traveler should bookmark the U.S. State Department’s traveler’s resources page. Frequently updated, the site provides critical information for just about every country worldwide. Here you can also find links to your destination’s embassy and/ consulate.
  • IATA’s Travel Centre
    The International Airport Transport Association updates its traveler’s resources many times each day because of the pandemic. This tool’s professional version is what airlines use to determine if you should be cleared for takeoff. You can get personalized health, passport and visa entry requirements for every destination and transit country worldwide. If travel is in your future, bookmark IATA’s Travel Centre.
  • Don’t overlook transit countries
    Keep in mind that you can be denied boarding at your point of origin if you do not have the correct documents to transit a country. It’s essential to check the requirements for transiting any foreign destination on your itinerary.
  • Be aware of how third-party booking agents build your ticket
    Third-party booking agents frequently create tickets using unrelated one-way segments. While this might save you money, it can have a devastating outcome if you’re permitted to transit a country but not allowed to enter it (for instance, the Schengen area). If your booking agent built you a series of one-way tickets, you won’t be considered a transit passenger, and the best possible outcome will be that you’ll get denied boarding. The worst possible outcome? You’ll be detained and returned home — no refund included.
  • Book nonstop flights
    Your goal should be to minimize as many potential snags in your itinerary as you can. The more stops you add to your trip, the more chances you’ve added a problem to your journey. Booking a nonstop flight can minimize your risk of running afoul of transit requirements.
  • Don’t forget about time zone changes
    We’ve had a few cases over the years in which a traveler forgot about time zone changes during their flight planning and that oversight caused big problems. It’s important to remember that even as the pandemic fades, there are still COVID testing requirements in many locations worldwide. Your negative COVID test results will come with an expiration time that will vary based on your destination/transit country. It’s crucial that passengers factor time zone changes into their planning. The World Clock can help make sure that you’re never blocked from entry to a foreign destination because of an expired COVID-19 test (Which, by the way, can still be a problem even in Sept. 2022).
  • Get to the airport early
    As confused as passengers are about the ever-changing requirements for international travel, the airline agents are as well. Take this confusion factor into consideration when you decide how early you should go to the airport. You’ll want to give yourself and the airline agents a little extra time for check-in. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)
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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer reporter and advocate, author, mediator, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on tv helping fix a situation. :) Michelle is also an Ombudsman Columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.