Home >> Travel Troubles >> Delta Air Lines rejected me and my expired passport by mistake, right?

Delta Air Lines rejected me and my expired passport by mistake, right?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

A Delta Air Lines passenger believed she could fly to China with an expired passport, but was denied boarding. She says Delta made a mistake rejecting her documents and should have allowed her to take the flight to China.

Now she’s hoping for a refund and additional compensation for her troubles.

What’s going on here?


My mom and I purchased tickets to China. After we flew from Florida to Seattle, Delta Air Lines denied boarding to us for our international flight to Beijing. We already had boarding passes. I have a valid green card and an expired Chinese passport. I also had other valid travel documents, something like a temporary passport that the Chinese Embassy issues for people who lost their passports or have expired passports and need to go to China. With this, even with my passport expired, I can still go to China without any problem.

When we landed in Seattle, Delta Air Lines gate agents announced several times that passengers could stay and they would reward each passenger an $800 gift card. But, nobody wanted to stay. As we tried to get on the plane, suddenly I was denied boarding. The Delta Air Lines gate agent told me that I could not go to China using my expired Chinese passport. He would not consider my other travel documents.

I pointed out that the Delta Air Lines gate agents in Florida gave us boarding passes to China. I begged them to call the Chinese embassy to confirm that I could enter China with my expired passport. They refused. The gate manager, Derek, said he would refund our tickets and give us each an $800 gift card as compensation. We refused this offer.

Later we found out that Derek wrote a fake report saying we voluntarily stayed. The report doesn’t say we were denied boarding. Delta Air Lines then told me that I should ask my travel agency for a refund. I don’t think my travel agency owes me a refund. It was Delta Air Lines who denied boarding to me. That’s who should give me a refund. I had valid travel documents to fly to China!

I want a refund of our tickets, the gift cards, repayment for incidentals and Derek should be reprimanded. Can you help? Lin Wang, Pompano Beach, Fla.


When I first read through your complaint, I wasn’t confident that we could successfully resolve your case. After all, it is always the passenger’s responsibility to know and possess the valid travel documents needed for their intended destination.

In fact, we have published many articles on this topic.

It’s quite rare that a passenger would receive any compensation after being denied boarding because of insufficient travel documents.

Most travelers who show up at the airport without valid travel documents end up back home where they started — no refund or vacation included… or worse (See: Welcome to Switzerland! Now you’re going to jail.)

Delta Air Lines: Your denied boarding this flight

But you offered several points that made your case both complicated and unique.

First, you weren’t traveling on a U.S. passport. You were traveling with an expired Chinese passport and a green card. And you presented an additional document from the Chinese embassy. You told me that your paperwork proved that you could enter China with the expired passport and the other documentation.

Unfortunately, your supporting document was a lengthy one — and written entirely in Chinese. The Delta gate agent couldn’t read Chinese and wasn’t willing to accept this “proof” of your eligibility to enter China. And so you were denied boarding.

I can’t read Chinese either, so I put your document into Google Translate. It appears that you printed out a generic notice from the Chinese Embassy’s website in support of your claim. The notice does not address whether or not you specifically could travel with the documentation that you presented.

Your evidence may prove that you could travel to China with your expired passport and the additional documents. I really don’t know. But without an official translation of this paperwork; it’s murky. And the Delta Air Lines gate agent was under no requirement to take a chance and allow you to fly to China.


A U.S. green card is not valid for international travel unless it is accompanied by a non-expired passport from the passenger’s country of origin. Something you didn’t have.

Airlines risk heavy penalties

Delta Air Lines has a vested interest in making sure that it does not transport anyone to a foreign country without valid travel documents. Airlines can be heavily fined if they allow a person to board a flight without proper identification.

If a passenger has an atypical situation, it’s the traveler’s responsibility to provide official, notarized proof of the validity of their travel documents. You didn’t have that type of evidence.

However, you believed that you were denied boarding because of an oversold flight.

But the facts point to something different. When I put your information into The International Airline Transport Association’s (IATA) document checker (Timatic), I received the same message that the Delta Air Lines gate agent received concerning your travel documents.

No, the documentation you hold is NOT sufficient for the journey you have specified.

Passport required.

Document Validity:

Passports and other documents accepted for entry must be valid on arrival.

From Timatic

Delta Air Lines: You weren’t denied boarding by mistake

So while I couldn’t agree with you that you were involuntarily denied boarding because of an oversold flight, I wondered why you had been allowed to board your initial domestic flight in the first place. And as I continued to read your long paper trail, things became more puzzling.

Delta Air Lines had already approved most of what you were asking for — minus the reprimand of Derek.

In your frustration, you had conducted an ill-advised letter-writing campaign to Delta Air Lines, the Department of Transportation and our advocacy team.


Oddly, you sent this specific email after Delta Air Lines had already approved your refund.

Delta reiterated that, according to Timatic, you had not been denied boarding by mistake. The airline approved your refund because of the gate agents’ mistake in Florida. You should not have been permitted to begin your journey in the first place with the expired passport.

By the way, I’ve covered some pretty spectacular errors by airline agents over the years. I’m always ready to investigate and defend a passenger who has been denied boarding by mistake. 

But in your case, I agreed with Delta. The error was allowing you to board the original flight in the first place – not the part where you were denied boarding the international flight to China.

How to write an effective complaint letter

When I pointed out that Delta had already approved your refund, you told me that you hadn’t received it and that the airline had stopped responding to you.

We offer tips concerning how to write an effective complaint and get excellent customer service, but you hadn’t read them before you wrote your letters to Delta. That’s unfortunate because your emails likely alienated you from any airline executive who could have quickly processed your refund. Instead, the company referred you back to your travel agent.

When you’re writing a self-advocacy letter, it’s important to remember that you want to make the customer service agent want to help you. The person who receives your email likely receives many complaints per week. The best way to get a positive result is by making your correspondence short, polite and factual.

By the way, that’s true when you’re writing to a consumer advocacy team as well.

You checked with your travel agent, who told you that they could not process your refund because Delta Air Lines had taken control of the ticket.

The good news from Delta Air Lines

I contacted Delta Air Lines on your behalf. The company quickly responded with a refund of your original tickets. Additionally, you and your mom will each receive $750 Delta Air Lines travel vouchers for your inconvenience.

You are pleased with this resolution, but you still maintain that you did possess valid travel documents for your situation. You told me that you flew to China with another airline using your expired passport, but you didn’t mention which airline allowed you to do so. Hopefully you’ll be renewing your passport during your visit since you’ll encounter significant difficulties flying back to the United States if you don’t have an unexpired passport with your valid green card.

Travelers should always remember it’s not up to the airlines to take a chance on you. If your international travel documents deviate from the norm, it’s imperative to have official proof to support your situation. 

The bottom line: It’s never a good idea to try to travel with any expired documents. That’s true no matter where you’re going or whether you think you can or not. Because although Delta refunded this ticket, in most cases, when a traveler is denied boarding for insufficient or expired documentation, there will be no refund and no do-over. Don’t risk it.   (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

Before you go: Here’s what happened when a traveler tried to board her cruise with an expired passport.

Need to renew your passport? Here’s how to get your U.S. passport renewed fast.

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel 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. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. 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.