QUITO, Ecuador—An American senior citizen on a flight to South America was seized and jailed by Ecuador immigration authorities after arriving there for a vacation.
Bonnie Anderson boarded her January 15 flight from Miami International Airport to Quito without her passport. What follows is a cautionary tale.
“When I got on the plane, I discovered I didn’t have my purse,” said Anderson. “I must have accidently left it in the American Airlines Admiral’s Club. And my passport and travel money were in my purse. I got very nervous.”
LAN attendants at the boarding gate did not ask for her passport, only her ticket. So unsuspectingly she boarded the plane.
“Once I found out my purse and passport weren’t with me, I immediately told the flight attendant. I told her I need to go back and find them. She said I could not get off the plane. But people were still getting on the plane. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t let me off. They just said, no”
Passports are issued and directed by the State Department. Their Web site reads: “If you are a U.S. citizen wishing to enter Ecuador, you must present a U.S. passport.”
Prior to boarding an international flight a passenger must have passport in hand and present it. Officials at the LAN Ecuador gate, however, allowed Anderson to board without asking for the passport.
Had they done so, she would have realized that she had left her purse and been able to retrieve it before getting on the flight.
“Any time you’re leaving for international travel, it’s always a requirement that you have to present a US passport,” said Cheri (last name not given), a passport specialist with Bureau of Consular Affairs, a service of the State Department.
“They (airlines) are aware that you have to have that passport,” said the specialist. “They are not going to allow you to board the plane without that passport.”
But in this case LAN did allow a passenger to board their aircraft, even against federal law and their own internal policy. And furthermore, refused and restricted her from leaving the plane, which she was not allowed to be on when they were notified she was not in compliance with international flight rules which, posted on the company website:
“All passengers require a valid passport for international travel. Failure to comply with this document may result in denied boarding.”
Anderson bought her ticket through American Airlines. Their passport policy is clear, too.
“International passengers must hold a valid passport…to enter or depart the United States,” the American policy states. “If you don’t have your valid travel documents for the destination country… you won’t be able to travel.”
Anderson contacted American Airlines when she returned home weeks later. The soon-to-be largest airline in the country said they are “disappointed” her flight “did not go very smoothly.”
They ignored her request for a refund, and said they have no responsibility in all this.
“The operating carrier (LAN) has the responsibility to address any concerns associated with international documentation,” American said in an email. “American Airlines was not involved.”
But American is involved, as LAN is a “One World” Alliance partner with them, and American put her on the disastrous LAN flight.
LAN flight 517 took off for the 4 hour 20 minute ride to Ecuador. Anderson did not have her documents, only a paper copy of her passport.
“During the flight the attendant asked if I had any other identification,” Anderson said. “I told him I had a photocopy of my passport in my waist pouch. He said that should be okay. It relieved my mind.”
Her husband, friends and father-in-law were waiting for her at Mariscal Sucre International Airport. But they got a text message from her saying, something was wrong.
Immigration officials asked for her passport. She told them she didn’t have one and assured them LAN officials said the photocopy was OK. They assured her it was not.
“The immigration official said he needed my passport to stamp,” Anderson said. “I told him I lost my purse in Miami and didn’t have one. So he called a supervisor.”
After five hours of internal debate, immigration officials took her into custody and incarcerated her.
This was her first visit to Ecuador.
Her father-in-law was incensed by the police action. Being born and raised in Colombia, he remembers well what goes on in South American jails.
“The Policía Nacional (National Police) told me everything was so screwed up,” said Jaime Alessandro Cortes, who speaks fluent Spanish and English. “But the new civilian immigration officials were now in charge.”
They put her in a 12’ X 12’ pale-yellow cell, where she laid scared on the bottom metal bunk and quietly read the previous inmates’ experiences inscribed on the wood slats holding the bed above, all the while avoiding the silverfish bugs crawling on the floor. “I was so scared.”
“They offered me food and water,” she said. “But I wasn’t hungry. I wanted to throw up.”
Then at 3 o’clock in the morning, she heard another cell door slam shut and wondered if another American’s nightmare was about to begin.
“How often does this happen? Do the American authorities know about this?”
But those questions are for another day. All Anderson wanted was help, asking for it several times. “I wanted to talk to my husband waiting for me. But they wouldn’t let me talk to him or anyone. And none of them spoke English. When the metal door slammed shut, I just cried. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Strangely, Anderson is no stranger to immigration policy. Retired from the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service (now Homeland Security) after 30 years of stellar service, this retired 70-year-old woman, 5 feet tall at 120 pounds hardly profiles as a terrorist.
In this case, common sense would have demanded a more measured response, not a lock up.
LAN officials eventually found her purse and passport in Miami. And 24 hours later flew it to Ecuador, where immigration officials released her and stamped the passport.
No apologies where given by LAN or American Airlines.
Official investigations are underway to see it this is an isolated case or a pattern of abuse.
In the meantime, American Airlines and LAN passengers must be warned of policies that could result in travel plans that don’t go “smoothly.” In the end, whatever an airline employee tells you on the plane, do not listen to them.
Their only job is to get the plane in the air; your personal safety once you disembark is not their concern.
And, take a bit of advice from Karl Malden, “Don’t leave home without it,” your passport that is.
(Wayne Anderson, Bonnie Anderson’s husband is a columnist at Communities Digital News, LLC and he contributed to this report)
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