‘A passport scanner at Heathrow cost me an £8,000 family holiday’

Self-service machines are supposed to make check-in a breeze
Self-service machines are supposed to make check-in a breeze - Alamy Stock Photo

There is no universal rule book when it comes to assessing whether a passport is too damaged to be valid. But airlines face a fine if they allow a passenger to board who is later turned away at the border, so they usually play it safe – as the following case study demonstrates.

Emily Allen writes

On the morning of September 8, me, my husband and our two young children were due to travel on a British Airways flight to Corfu for an all-inclusive, one-week holiday.

When we arrived at Terminal 5 departures, I used BA’s self-service check-in machines to print our boarding passes. Initially, I placed my passport into the machine the wrong way around, so slid it back out carefully and turned it around. During this process the photo/observations page, which on my 2016 document is not laminated – just paper covered by a thin film patch – ripped, leaving an inch-long tear across the edge of the passport photo.

I alerted a member of the airline’s staff, who at first suggested I buy some sellotape from an airport shop and patch it up myself. The situation quickly escalated, however, and BA refused to let me board. It said that, even if I did fly, Greek immigration would refuse me entry with a damaged passport and send me back to the UK, something it said would result in a fine for the airline.

We tried to salvage our family holiday by getting emergency travel documents or an appointment for a fast-track passport. But emergency documents are only available if you’re outside the UK, and even with a fast-track application it would have taken around 10 days for a new passport to arrive. So we took the painful decision to simply cancel and go home.

We had two travel insurance policies, so assumed we’d at least get our money back, but both insurers said they wouldn’t cover this type of passport damage so won’t pay out. Our hotel in Corfu refused our request to move our booking to another date, and demanded we pay 90 per cent of our full balance due to our last-minute cancellation. They’ve now reduced this to 50 per cent, which I’ve agreed to pay. We paid for the flights using Avios points, but all-in-all we’ve lost £4,000.

Emily's damaged passport meant she was unable to board her flight
Emily's damaged passport meant she was unable to board her flight - Getty

We complained to BA, raising concerns about the machines damaging other people’s passports, and its response was disappointing, simply stating: “It’s the customer’s responsibility to make sure they have all the documents they need.” Is there anything I can do?

Oliver Smith responds

What a nightmare scenario. I can only imagine how you must have felt at Heathrow as your plans for a family holiday unravelled through no fault of your own.

Given that the damage to your passport was a significant tear on the photo page, it seems reasonable that BA refused to let you board.

According to the Home Office, passports that display general wear and tear (such as small creases on non-photo pages or a slightly faded cover) do not need to be replaced, but it lists on its website other examples of significant damage that would, for security reasons, require a new document:

  • When the personal details or observation page are unreadable

  • Laminate peeling or lifting away from the personal details page

  • Unreadable security details

  • Missing or detached pages

  • Where the front, back or personal details page has been cut

  • Damage or discolouration to any part of the passport caused, for example, by:

    • water

    • chemical or ink spills

    • tears, rips, bite marks

  • On a blue e-Passport, where the:

    • perforated passport numbers have been torn (the perforations will show slight charring, this is normal)

    • personal details page is broken or cracked

  • Where the chip or antenna shows through the:

    • endpaper on back cover of a burgundy e-Passport

    • personal details page of a blue e-Passport

  • When, after investigation, we identify the passport chip as damaged and not faulty

The authorities in Greece may have overlooked your torn passport – we’ll never know. There is no universal rule book, and one cannot predict how much damage would be acceptable to a border official on any given day. Some countries are known to be more stringent than others when it comes to refusing entry to those with damaged documents, but the internet is filled with tales of holidays ruined by far less badly blemished passports than your own.

For airlines, it pays to play it safe. That’s because, as a BA staff member explained to you, they face a fine if they allow a passenger to board who is later turned away at the border.

Emily was out of £4,000 out of pocket due to the cancelled holiday to Corfu
Emily was out of £4,000 out of pocket due to the cancelled holiday to Corfu - Getty

The International Air Transport Association has estimated that around 60,000 passengers are turned back, either at their final destination or in transit, by immigration authorities each year. This can include issues other than damage, such as validity problems, or lack of empty pages for visas. Fines handed to airlines, it says, average around $3,500 (£2,880) per passenger.

I contacted three travel insurers – Admiral, Staysure and Aviva – and none said they had policies that would cover your scenario. A spokesperson for Staysure added: “Like most insurers, however, Staysure policies do offer elements of cover for passports that are lost, damaged or stolen while on the trip.”

A spokesperson for British Airways told Telegraph Travel: “Tens of thousands of people use the self-service check-in machines without issue, so this is an extremely rare situation. Airlines are legally required to ensure any travel documents presented are valid, therefore ripped or damaged passports can’t be accepted. We understand our customer’s frustration and will be in contact with them directly to discuss this further.”

BA agreed to add 40,000 Avios points to Emily's account to help make up for the lost holiday
BA agreed to add 40,000 Avios points to Emily's account to help make up for the lost holiday - Getty

The airline has since added 40,000 Avios points to your Executive Club account and sent you a £100 voucher towards a future BA flight. It won’t entirely make up for a lost holiday, but it’s something.

I’d advise other readers to store their passport in a safe place, keep a close eye on its condition, replace it quickly if they spot any significant damage – and take extra care when using airport check-in machines, particularly if they possess an older, unlaminated document.

Your travel problems solved

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