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Swiss Air denied boarding to me by mistake. Who will pay for this?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

Stepping up to the Swiss Air check-in counter at Newark International, Zivia Berkowitz didn’t expect any problems. She was excitedly on her way to join an expedition team to hike to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. 

At least, that was the plan. But that isn’t what happened. What did happen is that Swiss Air denied boarding to Berkowitz – she says by mistake. So, instead of flying to Africa, she spent the night in an airport hotel scrambling to find last-minute replacement flights.

The good news: Berkowitz was able to fly to Africa on Kenya Airways the next day without a problem. She made it to Tanzania in time to join her expedition group and successfully hiked to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. 

The bad news: Berkowitz says the Swiss Air agents’ mistake cost her significant additional expenses, and she wants to be reimbursed. 

Everyone can likely agree that if Swiss Air denied boarding to Berkowitz by mistake, reimbursement would be fair. But the airline is holding firm that it didn’t make a mistake, Berkowitz did. 

So did Swiss Air make this mistake or does the fault lie with Berkowitz? That is the question of the day.

Planning an expedition to Mt. Kilimanjaro

Nearly a year ago, Berkowitz began to plan her “trip of a lifetime.”

She, along with nine other women, would make up the expedition team that would hike to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro together.

The hike would begin on Jan 3, so Berkowitz made flight arrangements to arrive in Tanzania on Jan 2.

Using the online booking agent Ovago, she booked the most economical flight available. Berkowitz would fly Swiss Air from Newark to Zurich and then fly on to Kilimanjaro International Airport.

the Swiss Air flight itinerary from Newark to Kilimanjaro International Airport.
Zivia planned to fly Swiss Air from Newark to Zurich and then to Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania. That is until Swiss Air denied boarding to her.

Of course, this flight itinerary would have worked out fine had Swiss Air not denied boarding to Berkowitz.  But this economical route would turn into a giant and unpleasant expense. 

Swiss Air: “You’re denied boarding this flight.”

On New Year’s Eve, when the rest of us were celebrating, Berkowitz’s dad drove her to Newark to begin her journey. The two hugged goodbye and Berkowitz made her way to the check-in counter. 

That’s where everything began going wrong. 

The [Swiss Air agent] told me I needed a visa to enter Tanzania. I told her I understood I needed a visa, but I intended to get one upon landing. U.S. citizens are eligible for tourist visas upon landing. I even showed her some information available online from the embassy in Tanzania.  But she [the Swiss Air agent] didn’t care what I was showing her. She told me I could not board my Swiss Air flight to Zurich because I didn’t have a visa to enter Tanzania.

Zivia Berkowitz

When Berkowitz asked to speak to a supervisor, things only spiraled further downhill. 

“She [Swiss Air supervisor] just repeated what the other agent had said,” Berkowitz recalled. “They were becoming rude and dismissive to me.”

When it became clear that she was not going to be allowed to board her scheduled Swiss Air flight, Berkowitz asked for a cancellation and refund. 

Now Berkowitz was in for another blow. According to the terms of Swiss Air, if a passenger is denied boarding because they don’t have the correct traveling documents, the airline doesn’t owe any refund.

So not only did Swiss Air deny me boarding and refuse to let me fly to Tanzania, but the airline intended to keep my money, too!

Zivia Berkowitz

With time ticking and realizing she was getting nowhere with Swiss Air, Berkowitz grabbed her bags and walked away.

Swiss Air won’t fly you to Tanzania, but Kenya Airways will

That evening, Berkowitz searched the internet for last-minute airfares to Tanzania. She zoomed in on a flight on Kenya Airways that would have her arrive just in the nick of time for the expedition – if she hit no delays.

“I had no other choice,” Berkowitz told me. “I had planned this trip for too long to give up on my dream to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro now!”

She booked the flights and flew to Tanzania the next day without even one delay. 

I first heard about Berkowitz’s plight a short time later when her dad, Alan, sent a request for help to Consumer Rescue. It was just days after Swiss Air had denied boarding to his daughter, he said, by mistake. 

Asking Consumer Rescue for help 

Alan was outraged that his daughter had been prevented from boarding her flight. 

Hi Michelle, I’m contacting you after reading your article about Jordan Allen’s denied boarding experience and his trip to Ghana.  There were a lot of similarities between Jordan’s and Zivia’s experiences.  Fortunately, Zivia was able to book a flight for the next day that was a little cheaper than the flight she had on Swiss Air.  That said, her experience was incredibly stressful as Zivia was planning a big trip with pending deadlines (she was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of women and the climb was scheduled to begin shortly after her scheduled arrival). Can you help?

Alan Berkowitz

Sidebar: Jordan Allen asked me for help after British Airways denied him boarding his Christmas Eve flight to London and Ghana. He also had planned a special, time-sensitive trip that was jeopardized by a mistake by an entire team of British Airways agents. Jordan had reached impossible obstacles while trying to prove he had all the correct documents to travel to Africa. That all changed when his request for help landed on my desk.

Alan hoped for the same type of positive outcome for Zivia. But he had been trying unsuccessfully to prove that she had been wrongly denied boarding. He was frustrated with his experience and was about to give up.

However, when he was able to get a statement from the Tanzanian embassy that provided proof that Swiss Air had denied boarding to Zivia by mistake, he assumed the airline would quickly apologize.

Tanzania Embassy provides proof that Swiss Air denied boarding to its customer by mistake.
The Tanzanian Embassy confirms that American citizens are welcome to get their visa upon landing at Kilimanjaro International Airport.

He assumed wrong.

“I sent the notice to Swiss Air to prove that Zivia had been denied boarding in error,” Alan told me. “But they don’t care. Swiss Air sent me another official notice that Zivia isn’t owed a refund because she didn’t have a visa.”

I reviewed the paper trail that Alan provided. I noted that even after he provided proof from the Tanzanian embassy, Swiss Air refused to acknowledge it had denied boarding Zivia by mistake.

Swiss Air says it didn't make a mistake and it won't refund this passenger.
Swiss Air doubles down and reiterates that it didn’t make a mistake; Zivia did. The end result? No refund.

But with the letter from the embassy, I was confident that this case was a slam dunk for our team. That is until my colleague Dwayne Coward noticed something that put that outcome in danger. 

A one-way ticket can get a passenger denied boarding 

As you may know, Dwayne and I often collaborate on the help requests we receive. And since we share an email box, we always read each other’s cases. Sometimes, one of us will catch something in the paper trail that the other didn’t. It’s a great system that has allowed Dwayne and I to solve thousands of consumer problems together for almost a decade now.

On the day I was reviewing Berkowitz’s paper trail, Dwayne had a look, too. When I asked him what he thought, he pointed out a detail I had missed: Berkowitz had been traveling on a one-way ticket to Tanzania. One of the entry requirements to enter Tanzania is that the traveler must have proof of the intention to leave the area within 90 days.

A one-way ticket to Tanzania would not provide that proof.

I hoped Berkowitz had proof of a flight home from Tanzania as well. If she didn’t, I knew this case would be dead in the water.

Can Consumer Rescue convince Swiss Air it made a mistake?

When I asked Berkowitz if she had provided proof to Swiss Air that she had a flight scheduled to leave Tanzania, she quickly sent me a copy of her reservation home. 

Now that I had all of the evidence in Berkowitz’s favor, it was time to present her case to our executive contact at Swiss Air. 

Hi there! I’m working on a case right now that involves a Swiss Air passenger who was denied boarding Swiss Flight LX19 on Dec 31, 2023, from Newark to Zurich with an ongoing flight to Tanzania (Swiss flight LX8076). The reason given to this young lady, Zivia Berkowitz, was that she needed a visa to enter Tanzania. While it is true that U.S. citizens need visas to enter Tanzania, these can be issued at the airport upon landing. This information is easily confirmed via Timatic, which I assume Swiss Air uses. But Zivia was still prevented from boarding her flight to Tanzania and she was not provided a refund. Swiss appears to have closed the complaint in its own favor despite the facts showing Zivia was denied boarding by mistake.

In fact, the next day, Zivia flew to Tanzania on Kenya Airways without a visa and was granted her visa upon arrival. Zivia’s father, Alan Berkowitz, has been attempting to resolve this case for Zivia while she is hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro. Now he’s hoping our team can reach someone at Swiss who can favorably resolve this case.

Zivia should be issued a refund for her ticket and should also be considered for EU 261 compensation. Please have a look.

Thank you for your help with this matter!

Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Advocate

The good news: Swiss Air admits you were denied boarding by mistake

And within just a few days, the good news came for Zivia and Alan from Swiss Air. 

Dear Michelle,

Thank you very much again for your enquiry and for sending us the documents.

First of all, we would like to sincerely apologize to Ms. Berkowitz for the inconvenience caused.

Our investigations into this case have revealed that, unfortunately, a mistake has indeed been made [by Swiss Air]. Ms. Berkowitz is right; she should not have been denied boarding. The entry requirements for Tanzania were not correctly taken into account, neither on the day of her flight, nor afterwards when she was in contact with our customer service.

We therefore sincerely apologize to Ms. Berkowitz. We will contact her as soon as possible and she will of course receive the refund of the flight ticket and the payment of the denied boarding compensation.

By doing so, we hope that we can close the case to her satisfaction and that we can welcome her back on board one of our flights one day.  

We hope this information is helpful for you.

Kind regards,

Swiss International Air Lines Ltd.

That was music to Zivia’s ears. She was able to complete her adventure knowing that Swiss Air:

  •  Acknowledged its mistake and apologized
  •  Refunded her ticket
  •  Agreed to provide EU 261 compensation (currently around $650) plus hotel reimbursement

And Alan was pleased as could be that his daughter was fully vindicated.

Michelle, Thank you so much. You provide an amazing service and I will highly recommend you and your team at Consumer Rescue to anyone who is being treated unfairly by a travel company.

Alan Berkowitz
Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Zivia Berkowitz almost missed that trip when Swiss Air denied boarding to her.
Despite nearly missing her expedition entirely, Zivia is all smiles after making it to Mt. Kilimanjaro.

What to do if you get denied boarding a flight

More often than not, when an airline passenger is denied boarding, it isn’t the airline’s mistake. It’s usually the result of a traveler not doing the proper research before heading to the airport with the wrong documentation (Like a library card instead of a passport).

In fact, if you’re a regular reader of this site, you might recall another case involving Swiss Air. In that case, the airline neglected to deny boarding to a passenger who rightly should have been prevented from taking the flight. Instead, Swiss Air allowed the traveler to fly to Switzerland with a nearly expired passport where she was immediately detained (overnight) – and then sent back home the next day.

But the vast majority of the denied boarding cases you’ll read about on Consumer Rescue are the result of an airline agent’s mistake. If you end up in a similar situation, here’s what you need to do.

  • Ask to speak to a supervisor: You can often prevent a full-blown denied boarding fiasco simply by asking to speak to a supervisor. Make sure to keep your appeal calm and polite – and stick to the facts. If you don’t have a hard copy of the entry rules with you (which you really should bring to the airport) you may be able to access the U.S. Department of State: Learn About Your Destination page from your phone to support your position. The free version of Timatic is also another official online resource that can help you. The professional version of Timatic is what most airlines use to determine if a passenger has the correct documentation to travel. 
  • Consider social media: Tweeting or posting a public complaint on your airline’s social media will sometimes get a positive response. Before you decide to give it a try, you’ll want to make certain that your airline has live attendants monitoring its social media account. Otherwise, you might just be wasting time that you could be using to create a better plan of action. 
  • Take names and notes: If you’re unable to convince the airline agents that they’re making a mistake, be sure to get the names of everyone involved. Take notes, and if at all possible, get the supervisor to sign your notes. It is standard practice in the cruise line industry to provide formal notification signed by a supervisor when a passenger is denied boarding. Unfortunately, in the airline industry that doesn’t appear to be the case. But you can create your own document.  
  • Keep your cool – and all your receipts: If the airline has sealed your fate and you are officially being denied boarding, don’t lose your cool. If you’re certain that you have all the correct documentation to enter your destination and all transit points, make alternative flight arrangements. Keep your expenses reasonable – that is to say, if you were flying in economy, don’t book first class and expect reimbursement later. Carefully document your necessary expenses and store all your receipts.  
  • Put your complaint in writing: After it’s all said and done, gather all your receipts and your supporting evidence. Create a short, polite summary of what happened and why you know the airline denied boarding to you by mistake.

Note: Remember whoever receives your message is receiving hundreds of complaints. To give your case the best possible chance of ending positively, keep things clear, concise and cordial. I explain how to do that in my guide to getting great customer service and fixing your consumer problem. If you need help finding someone within the airline who is willing and able to assist you, Just Ask Meera, Consumer Rescue’s executive customer service contact finder

If all else fails and you need direct assistance, here’s where to find our consumer advocacy team. Our mediation services are always friendly and always free.  (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 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.