Flight risks

by Henry Farrell on August 25, 2003

I’ve just returned to the US after a long holiday in Ireland, and had an interesting, if unpleasant, experience on my way back. When I tried to check in to my American Airlines flight at Heathrow, the ticket agent, and then her supervisor, refused to give me a ticket. US immigration authorities require that all non-visa travellers to the US have a return or onwards flight to be allowed to enter the country. I had an onward flight to Toronto, where I teach and work, but for some reason, the American Airlines people wouldn’t accept it. At first, they claimed that I needed to have a return flight to London, and London alone to satisfy US immigration requirements. Then they changed their story, and claimed that because I was going to be returning to the US later (my onward flight was a return from Washington DC to Toronto), US immigration authorities wouldn’t accept it. I strongly suspect that the real reason was that I had an electronic ticket, and they weren’t very familiar or comfortable with them. Certainly, when I went through US immigration, the official had no problems whatsoever in letting me through.

So far perhaps, unsurprising – another instance of heightened security measures, twitchy airline employees etc. The interesting bit is what comes next. The American Airlines supervisor tells me that each time someone gets sent back by US immigration officials, American Airlines has to pay a $3000 fine. However, they’ll let me get on the plane on one condition – I have to buy a fully refundable one-way ticket back to London. This is to satisfy US immigration authorities that I have a return flight so that they don’t fine the airline – but as soon as I pass through immigration, I can go to an American Airlines desk, and get the ticket torn up and refunded. In other words, the airline was abiding by the letter of US immigrations regulations as it understood them, but flouting these regulations’ intention – and requiring me passively to cooperate with what it was doing if I wanted to board the flight. The airline supervisor gave me to understand that this was their standard practice.

This policy is obviously very problematic for travellers – I’d have been stuck in London if I hadn’t had a credit card with enough of a limit to pay for this temporary ticket. I was able to buy it in good conscience because it was clear that the airline was wrong in its interpretation of US immigration requirements – my original onward flight to Toronto would have sufficed perfectly well for US immigration authorities, so that I wasn’t seeking to evade the law in doing what American Airlines told me to do. But the airline’s policy says something more profound about current US aviation security policy. In part thanks to the unwillingness of the US administration to expand federal government employment, US authorities are relying more and more on airlines and other private actors to act as gatekeepers for them, threatening whopping fines if the airlines don’t cooperate. But sanction-and-control only goes so far because airlines, like other business actors, are motivated by the bottom line. Thus, in many situations they’re going to comply with the formalities of the regulations, so as to minimize their legal exposure, but look for ways to circumvent the intentions of the rule, so as not to turn paying customers away. I suspect that this isn’t only true of airlines – I’d be interested to know more, say, about banks’ compliance with Treasury rules on money flows, where I imagine that there might well be similar legalistic dodges and evasions.



ernest young 08.25.03 at 4:36 pm

This is nothing new, I had the very same experience six years ago. I too had to purchase a return ticket, and immediately on landing, claimed my refund, only problem was that it took two months for the refund to be credited to my card….the airline was Virgin Atlantic – you know the one – ‘Everyones favourite airline’.

All inconvenient, stupid and so bureaucratic!.. a global problem.


back40 08.25.03 at 5:29 pm

“…US authorities are relying more and more on airlines and other private actors to act as gatekeepers for them…”

In the US the “authorities” are seen as servants of the people rather than rulers. The “authorities” are given certain chores to do and the people do the rest. The people are quite willing to punish one another for failing to do their part.

At least, that’s the dominant plan, but there are a lot of confused Americans that deeply desire to submit to authority, to bend the knee to a ruler. We tried to chase them all back to England a couple of centuries ago but it’s hopeless. We just have to tolerate them.


Silbey 08.25.03 at 5:30 pm

I’m not sure this is a post-9/11 phenomenon. I remember rules like this stretching all the way back into the 1980s. When I went to England as a student in 1988, I had to show that I had a return ticket to be allowed in the country, at both the international flight check-in in New York, and at Immigration at Heathrow.


Brian Weatherson 08.25.03 at 5:58 pm

That’s a bizarre story. I hadn’t realised they had such a bizarre way to get around the law. Just two quick points.

I’d be very surprised if the electronic ticket was the cause of the problem. Maybe England is very different to America or Australia, but in any airport I’d be in recently there would more likely be a shock at paper tickets.

And as Ernest notes, this isn’t a new phenomenon somehow related to security crackdowns, or even something specific to the US. It’s been the airlines duty to check documentation everywhere (and everywhen) I’ve travelled. As much as I’d like to bash some other form of privatised security, in this case it’s probably more efficient than having agents for every different country’s immigration office at every different airline in the world.


Henry 08.25.03 at 6:16 pm

I agree that the rule that people have to have a return ticket has been around for a long time – but the impression I got (admittedly from a series of semi-competent airline employees) was that the willingness of the US to impose whopping fines on airlines for non compliance was new. And the AA supervisor seemed bizarrely unfamiliar with my e-ticket – picking it up gingerly, asking what it was, where my flight details were etc, and then observing that it was “only a computer print-out” (when she could have very easily popped behind her desk and checked whether my itinerary identifier popped up on the computer). That said, Ernest Young’s info that the airline companies’ dodge has been around for several years provides some good countervailing evidence that this is (at least in part) business as usual.

By coincidence, I’m about to present a paper which talks in part about new US government requirements on airline passenger information.


ssuma 08.25.03 at 6:48 pm

If the U.S. government is in fact imposing fines this is new, but airlines serving as the first line of defense is quite old. Under the Warsaw Convention (1929) if you fail to be admitted the airline is required to carry you back. They can charge you for this, but if you refuse to pay they still have to carry you and they are on the hook for the price of a ticket. Pre-screening is thus a very old practice. From the airlines point of view it is a scam in one sense, i.e. they are very slow to refund your money and get to keep it in the meantime. In another sense it is not, as you are now technically in compliance with the law. I would submit that the airline’s only legal or moral responsibility is to ensure that you are technically in compliance. The desirability of letting you into the country is a question for the INS.


Marc 08.25.03 at 7:17 pm

I have also experienced similar rules, in both the US and UK, for many years. As a student in the mid 1980’s, my travel agent advised travelling with an open return ticket rather than a one-way as a way to avoid problems. My understanding is that the requirement for an onward-ticket is not a security measure, but is aimed at screening out those who are intending to overstay their visas, such as illegal immigrants or others who might become a drain on the state. In some cases, travellers might be required to show means of supporting themselves during their intended stay; a major credit card would generally be adequte proff. If this is the case, American Airline’s solution is actually reasonable; the ability to buy a refundable trans-Atlantic ticket may very well rule one out as a likely illegal.


Randy Paul 08.25.03 at 11:26 pm


I travel from New York Brazil a couple of times a year, always on AA. On the return leg back to the US, the amount of scrutint all flyers get is very strong. Yet when I flew down to Brazil the last two times, I had to ask the AA employee doing my check in to check for my visa to Brazil.


Tom T. 08.26.03 at 1:49 am

I find your conclusion a bit baffling. You say that the US Government officials had your situation right, while the airline had it wrong. Yet you blame the US Government.

You say, “Thus, in many situations they’re going to comply with the formalities of the regulations, so as to minimize their legal exposure, but look for ways to circumvent the intentions of the rule, so as not to turn paying customers away.” I don’t see how you can come to this conclusion based on your experience. It seems that the formalities of the regulation were clear, but the airline refused to comply with them, to the point of being ready to turn away a paying customer. According to previous comments, it looks like the airline may have done so in order to capitalize on an opportunity for private blackmail of a “captive” traveler. To lay this situation at the feet of US law enforcement seems unjustified.

It’s true that the US Government could do away with fines for the airlines who violate regulations. If it did so, though, I can’t help but suspect that we would see articles from the professoriat about how the big airline corporations are being given a free pass and not being made to shoulder their fair share of the security burden.


Zack 08.26.03 at 7:41 am

Travelling in Europe, I also encountered immigration and airline officials who seemed to have no idea of an electronic ticket.

I think the fines for airlines have been there for some time, but probably were extended to cover more things after 9/11.

I recall hearing about a requirement for a return or onward ticket when one is visiting the US or EU, but when I came to the US 6 years ago as a student, I did not need a return ticket.


John Sheehy 08.26.03 at 9:13 am

AA is clearly responding appropriately to silly rules which only offer a veneer of sense. You think the 9-11 hijackers travelled to the US on one-way tickets? You think a potential illegal immigrant would buy a (probably more expensive) one-way ticket knowing they weren’t going to leave instead of a return ticket which gives the appropriate impression of only intending to be temporarily in the US.


bandiera 08.26.03 at 1:54 pm

Is there any issue here with the refundability of the difference in exchange rates? I used to have this problem when I used UK credit cards and received refunds – the CC people would pocket the vig on the transaction unless you made a vociferous complaint (actually, the insistent airline should eat these costs).

Buy tix: UK card, US$, get lousy rate

Cancel tix: UK card, refund back from US$, get lousy rate

On large transactions (like fully-refundable transatlantic tickets) the amount can be sizeable – maybe upwards of 6%. I think the issue is whether they are cancelling the transaction, or making a second transaction as a refund.

Jes’ curious.


Colin Stewart 08.28.03 at 4:13 pm

The immigration rules for entry into the US aren’t understood by most airlines – I’ve been given completely incorrect information several times by airline officials. For example I was told that I had to turn in my visa waiver to Canada customs officials instead of the airline. It took a short argument before I could persuade them that they had to take it.

Similarly US immigration officials only give you half the story. For example telling people that you can keep the visa waiver if you intend to re-enter the US within 30 days. It’s not true unless you are travelling to Mexico, Canada, or the nearby islands.

Generally I’ve had more misinformation and hassle from US based carriers. Travelling Air Canada or European based air lines is generally much easier.

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