A single letter "n" that was missing from a passenger’s first name on her ticket was enough for an airline to keep her off a flight leaving Edmonton — a move one airline critic says defies common sense.
Valiantsina Murashka and her husband, Mikalai — nervous first-time travellers — had flown from Belarus to visit their daughter Olga Kadychenka and her family in Edmonton.
The couple’s trip included connecting flights from Minsk via Warsaw and Toronto using three different airlines: Belavia, LOT Polish Airlines and Air Canada.
No one noticed her name on the e-ticket was incorrectly spelled “Valiatsina” until five months later, when she arrived at Edmonton International Airport for her flight home.
Her son-in-law, Aleh Kadychenka, scanned her passport at the check-in kiosk, but it kept getting rejected.
“It was denied first time, refused second time and then I noticed something [was] wrong,” Kadychenka said.
An Air Canada agent said the system would not allow Murashka to fly because the spelling of her first name on the ticket didn’t match what was on her passport.
Although Air Canada was willing to let Murashka fly the first leg to Toronto, it said LOT Airlines would not guarantee she could board the next flight to Warsaw.
Kadychenka said he called LOT’s office in Warsaw but to no avail.
“He said, 'If you would have four, maybe five weeks at least, we can do some investigation,” Kadychenka said.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Olga Kadychenka.
25 minutes to solve problem
“It was like [a] dream. We had 25 minutes to solve this problem,” she said.
“My mum was just asking me, ‘What? What they said?’ I didn’t know what to say, because I didn’t know what happened,” Kadychenka said.
Kadychenka said she couldn’t imagine letting her parents board the flight to Toronto and hoping for the best when they tried to make their connection.
Kadychenka’s parents had never flown before this trip and could not speak English.
She said her mother was starting to panic, believing she could be arrested in Toronto for not having the correct documents.
Aleh Kadychenka said he couldn’t take the risk of something going wrong for his nervous in-laws in a strange country, with only 90 minutes to change terminals and make their connecting flight.
“I was really in shock,” he said.
They decided their only option was to buy a new ticket for Murashka — for $1,500 — with her name spelled correctly.
However, the flights were showing full, even though Murashka would not be flying on her original ticket.
The next one-way flight to Minsk was two days later.
“I just came to my dad and said, ‘Dad, you have to fly by yourself because you know mum cannot fly.' So he said, 'OK.' But, you know, he was shaking,” Olga Kadychenka said.
“My mum, she was like in shock. She was crying and crying. We just bought a new ticket and went home together.”
Airline defends decision
LOT Polish Airlines declined repeated interview requests.
However, its passenger service agents did provide some emailed answers to questions by CBC's Go Public.
Krzysztof Pasterz wrote that the spelling error originated with a family member who purchased the ticket on the Belarusian version of LOT’s website.
Had the purchaser noticed the error within 24 hours, Pasterz said, LOT would have issued a replacement ticket without charge.
He said the misspelling may not have been considered a serious problem on the outbound journey.
“The person in charge of passport control was probably Belarusian and therefore, knew the correct spelling of most first names,” Pasterz wrote.
“He/she might have regarded that as a common typo.”
LOT agent Katarzyna Koba suggested Air Canada’s decision to allow Murashka to fly the first leg to Toronto was because “domestic flights, as from Edmonton to Toronto, are less rigorous than international flights.”
“That is the reason passenger could fly on domestic flight with incorrect name,” Koba wrote.
Air Canada often corrects minor spelling errors on tickets and could have done so in this case had it been an Air Canada-issued ticket, according to spokeswoman Angela Mah.
The Canadian government said LOT had the right to refuse to carry Murashka.
Transport Canada said airlines are required to verify the passenger’s name on the boarding pass are an exact match with the name on the passport.
The Canadian Transportation Agency, whose job it is to resolve disputes between airlines and their passengers, said airlines can be fined for carrying passengers who aren’t properly documented and said “the onus is on passengers to ensure the accuracy of their tickets.”
LOT Airlines’ decision ‘dubious’, advocate says
LOT may have been correct under the letter of the law, but “common sense” means it should have followed Air Canada’s example and allowed Valiantsina Murashka to fly, according to passenger-rights advocate Gabor Lukacs.
“Given they allowed them to fly on the first segment of the ticket, including an international segment, it is really dubious,” Lukacs said.
“The airline had every reason to believe these were legitimate passengers.
“They are the same people who flew in. They have the stamps on their passports to say they flew in. Let them leave,” Lukacs said.
“They don’t look like people who pose a security threat.”
Lukacs said that given such a minor spelling mistake, and the differences between the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, it was an oversight even an experienced traveller could make.
“I could see this happening to me,” he said.
Lukacs said a case could be made that LOT should pay compensation because the airline allowed the couple to complete half their journey.
Aleh Kadychenka said he has been offered only 170 euros (about $238 Cdn) from LOT. The airline denies making any offer.
“Just one innocent letter missing. It’s not like [a] last name, it’s not passport information,” he said.
After this ordeal, Olga Kadychenka said she doubts her mother will ever come to visit again.
“My mother really liked Canada, but after this she says, ‘I don’t know if I will fly here one more time.'”