The unearthly hour of 04:45am is not an ideal time to have your first heated argument of the day. But that's exactly what just happened today with me and the rather uninformed Ryanair staff at Porto Airport when two of my friends from Taiwan were visiting and continuing to the United Kingdom.
They were flying Porto to Stansted which is a Schengen Area to Common Travel Area journey and hence goes through passport control. I was not travelling with them but they informed me of previous issues Taiwanese passengers had faced with the airport staff before.
Now I would like to preface that some airlines have recently been mistakenly treating Taiwan passport holders as if they were Chinese, such that they need a visa to travel just about anywhere. In reality, Taiwan is a visa-free country to most of the Western countries including Canada, USA, UK, Ireland and the entire Schengen zone. In fact Taiwanese passports rank 30th in the Henley Passport Index with access to 174 countries visa-free.
Ryanair Visa-Check woes
So back to Porto. Ryanair imposes an additional visa check stamp requirement on boarding passes for non-EEA citizens. This is rather unusual but I've grown accustomed to it given their business model of ‘time-is-money' and preferring streamline gate operations as much as possible.
Ryanair's visa check desk in Porto is actually their customer service desk just beside their check-in counters. A supervisor usually oversees one or two staff doing these. On their desk was a list of countries that require a visa to visit the United Kingdom and the countries were printed in either red or black. We were met with a rather brusque “where is your visa?”, to which I replied “We don't need one. Taiwan is a visa-free country for the UK”. “Then you cannot board.” was the curt dismissal.
In a stand-off that lasted another 3 minutes I heard excuses such as “other airlines like Easyjet or British Airways might carry passengers, but it is Ryanair's rules not to carry Taiwan passengers without visa” (which is patently bullshit) to “if it's on this paper and you don't have a visa you won't go”.
The Sucker Punch
In the past I have written about the official Book of Complaints, which in Portugal is for serious matters only, and when I duly requested it then agent's demeanour turned from antagonistic to dumbfounded. She went behind their private screen to discuss with her supervisor and both returned arguing similar reasons but pointed to a different piece of paper on their wall from the UK Border Force and brought the sheet out to show me. Another “It's on this list therefore you need a visa” type dismissal. Except with one fatal flaw….
There is a note listed beside Taiwan, which reads:
6. Passports that include a personal ID number on the biodata page are exempt from the visa requirement
Nearly all Taiwanese passports have this personal ID number, my friends were indeed exempt and when I pointed this out to all the visa check staff at the desk they finally relented. What I noticed further was even more shocking: The initial desk agents had a printed list using the same countries and colour coding as above, but they had not copied in these all-important side notes. After pointing it out I could see both customer-facing agents modifying their lists by hand.
EC 261 compensation
My friends had told me that about a recent Taiwanese passenger from last month who had tried to fly this same Ryanair route and was actually denied boarding due to the same ‘visa issues'.
“…However, where passengers are denied boarding due to a mistake made by ground staff when checking their travel documents (including visas), that constitutes denial of boarding within the meaning of Article 2(j).”
Indeed should this have finally resulted in a denial (which that poor other passenger experienced), then this is a clear and incontestable €250 compensation under Article 7 paragraph 1(a) PLUS all reimbursement or re-routing permissions under Article 8
Right to reimbursement or re-routing
1. Where reference is made to this Article, passengers shall be offered the choice between:
(a) – reimbursement within seven days, by the means provided for in Article 7(3), of the full cost of the ticket at the price at which it was bought, for the part or parts of the journey not made, and for the part or parts already made if the flight is no longer serving any purpose in relation to the passenger's original travel plan, together with, when relevant,
– a return flight to the first point of departure, at the earliest opportunity;
(b) re-routing, under comparable transport conditions, to their final destination at the earliest opportunity; or
(c) re-routing, under comparable transport conditions, to their final destination at a later date at the passenger's convenience, subject to availability of seats.
2. Paragraph 1(a) shall also apply to passengers whose flights form part of a package, except for the right to reimbursement where such right arises under Directive 90/314/EEC.
3. When, in the case where a town, city or region is served by several airports, an operating air carrier offers a passenger a flight to an airport alternative to that for which the booking was made, the operating air carrier shall bear the cost of transferring the passenger from that alternative airport either to that for which the booking was made, or to another close-by destination agreed with the passenger.
ADDITIONALLY all the Duty of Care provisions under Article 9:
Right to care
1. Where reference is made to this Article, passengers shall be offered free of charge:
(a) meals and refreshments in a reasonable relation to the waiting time;
(b) hotel accommodation in cases
– where a stay of one or more nights becomes necessary, or
– where a stay additional to that intended by the passenger becomes necessary;
(c) transport between the airport and place of accommodation (hotel or other).
2. In addition, passengers shall be offered free of charge two telephone calls, telex or fax messages, or e-mails.
This is also summarised in the more user-friendly pages from European Commission, which helpfully states that this duty of care applies to all passengers who are denied boarding.
Given Taiwan nationals have been allowed to visit the UK visa-free for nearly 10 years, staff and internal documentation should really should have a firm grasp the rules by now.
But furthermore, if Ryanair is a company that really wants its passengers to play according to their rules and read the fine print, then expect someone who enjoys reading T&Cs to fight back when they are demonstrably wrong. How many more Taiwanese passengers could Ryanair staff at this airport and others wrongfully denied boarding I wonder?