Sunday, 27 January 2013

Flying Frustrations

I just returned from a trip to Australia to visit my family over the holidays.  I had a wonderful time with them which included seeing beautiful sights, eating or more like over eating the delicious food, fun, sun and laughter.  The trip however was greatly soured as we attempted to fly home.

My son is an Australian citizen and holds a temporary resident visa for Samoa.  This enables him to stay in Samoa until the visa expires in 2015.  I went to great lengths before we left to make sure that this stamp was valid and in his passport.  I was confident that there would be no problems when we went to the Melbourne Airport to check in with Virgin Australia.  Oh how I was wrong! 

The Australian Passport website says that “Australian Passports are valid for travel into and out of Australia regardless of the length of remaining validity…Be aware that different countries have different passport validity requirements for permitting entry. If your passport has inadequate validity, you may be refused entry or not be allowed to board your aircraft or ship in the first place.”

My son’s passport expires in June 2013 and our flight was in January 2013, in my mind that is six months validity and fitted within the six month requirement.  However the guest service agent and supervisor counted from February which in their minds made the validity only five months.  So Virgin Australia refused to check my son in even though they had already checked me and my bag in.  While I know that Virgin were well within their rights to do so, surely the resident visa and the fact that he has lived in Samoa for seven out of his nine years of life showed that Samoa would let my son into the country.  What is the point of making sure that we have all the correct information in place if the airline can just decide whatever they feel like suits them?

The guest service agent was extremely polite and very helpful changing the flight to the next week so that we could organize a new passport, also making the necessary notes so that if another change was required it would be free of charge.  The process of getting a new passport sounds like a simple and easy procedure, but this is not the case.  Australian passports for children require consent of both parents.  I completely understand the reasoning for this and think it is a reasonable safety precaution.   However, when parents are divorced and live in two different countries on opposite sides of the world the process becomes that much more difficult.

While I have not taken legal action to gain sole custody of my son, my mother did.  I remember when I was younger and needed a passport my mother still needed my father’s consent, even though at the time he had almost no contact with me and I was travelling to the country where he resided.  In my opinion surely the legal documentation would mean that the other parent doesn’t need to give consent. 

The other requirement is that if overseas the signing of the consent needs to be sighted by an employee of an Australian consulate or embassy.  My son’s father lives in Utah and the closest Australian office is in California.  With the timing being over Christmas, finances are tight and a return flight is very costly.  Already being a week late for work we decided that it best to leave my nine year old son with my sister as school begins shortly and the passport may take longer than we had hoped and also resulted in my son losing his place at a private school in Samoa.

I understand the reasons for having laws in place.  I know that everyone was just doing their jobs.  I could also have been more proactive in making sure that the passport was MORE than six months in validity.  In spite of this it just feels like the humanity factor of life and making decisions is discarded because of these laws resulting in young children bawling their eyes out because they have to be separated from their parent for a long period of time, people missing work and extra stress on finances.

You would think that my woes with passports and Virgin Australia would end there, but it keeps getting better.

After finding a family member who could bring my son back to Samoa once his passport is renewed, I endeavored to call the Guest contact Centre of Virgin Australia to change my son’s booking.  I was on hold for 30 minutes when my call was initially answered.  Apparently I was directed to the wrong division and my call was transferred.  Three and a half hours later my call was answered.  The service person was a lovely woman, very friendly and eager to help.  However, after being on hold for over three hours the last thing I wanted to do was discuss how long I had been waiting for or how long her previous customer had waited.

Virgin Australia had just introduced a new booking system and this was the reason for the delay.  After speaking with the customer service officer we were finalizing the changes when my over four hour phone call got cut off.  I was not about to call back and instead decided to contact Virgin through their facebook page.  My message stated the situation and my displeasure with their service even asking for compensation for the four and a half hour phone call which would cost around AUD$243.40 as it was made from a mobile phone, the only phone available to me.  When I received the follow up phone call clarifications and apologies were received with no mention of compensation.  I am thankful that the changes were made but if a huge multinational airline changes a system surely they will foresee that there will be waiting times and prepare for compensation for waiting.  Having to wait on the telephone for four hours would never happen in Samoa; we would be hung up on or passed around to several people before being hung up on.  How can we expect our developing country to improve when this is the kind of example our so called ‘developed countries’ are showing us?

You would think that nothing else could go wrong at this stage but my flying frustrations continue!  I made my way back to the airport knowing I had my exemption stamp, fully valid passport and confirmed booking.  I am accustomed to the Guest Service Agent checking the exemption stamp and getting their supervisor’s approval, I had just gone through the process the week before when I was checked in and ready to go.  However, this time the supervisor requested documentation of my Samoan citizenship stating that the exemption stamp was not proof of this because it says “holder has unrestricted rights to enter and remain in Samoa whilst Samoan citizenship remains valid.”  Her interpretation of this statement was that documentation of validity of citizenship was necessary before she would check me in.  Her reasoning being that the airline would be fined should the stamp not be valid.  Their attempts to call the Samoan Immigration were unsuccessful as it was already after 7pm in Samoa.  I had to call the Samoan Embassy in Canberra from my personal phone and one of the embassy staff then had to email the Guest Service Agent to say the exemption stamp is proof of my citizenship and to allow me on the plane.  After my many great experiences with Virgin at this stage I was on the verge of tears and the pure arrogance of the supervisor made it very difficult to stay civil and hold back the barrage of unkind words that wanted to be set free.  The supervisor very matter of fact said that it was not their responsibility to make sure that I had the correct documentation, and I agree it isn’t.  But I had all the correct documentation; surely it is their responsibility to ensure that they are familiar with the various visas and exemption stamps so that they know what they mean and the reason for having them.  How is it that they could check me in the week before with the same documentation and were giving me such difficulty this time?

I do agree that the exemption stamp itself could be made clearer in its wording.  Perhaps including the words exemption stamp and changing the wording or adding a validity date would be helpful.

I also see this as an opportunity for the Samoa Immigration office to introduce an after hour’s line for emergencies such as this.

I am so thankful for the Samoan Embassy in Canberra and the extra effort they took in ensuring I was able to board my flight.

Our National airline is an affiliate of Virgin Australia and even partially shares a name.  If we want our national carrier to do well we need to ensure that the Virgin brand is satisfactorily meeting our expectations.  If people are displeased with Virgin airline services whether in Australia or New Zealand it will affect Virgin Samoa and its ability to prosper.  If this could happen to me it could also happen to others.

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