Does an airline have the authority to deny grandparents and grandkids traveling together the right to board an international flight if they don't have a letter from the kid's parents allowing them to fly?
No, the airline cannot deny boarding. However, some foreign customs will stop you and make you return home. It's the airline's responsibility to bring you home, so it’s in everyone’s best interest that you have the letter.
Robert Eicher, WUSA9 viewer and grandfather
Lisa Tiller, Southwest Communications
Kathy Grannis Allen, Managing Director, Airline Industry Public Relations, Communications- Airlines for American
Kevin Brosnahan, Press Officer in the Bureau of Consular Affairs- U.S. Department of State
Rhonda Anderson, Belize Tourism Board
U.S. Citizen Services, U.S. Embassy Belize
Robert Eicher was outraged when a Southwest Airlines flight attendant informed him that he, his wife and their 10-year-old grandson could not board their flight to Belize. They had to make this leg of their trip. Robert's daughter was getting married.
The problem wasn't with their passports. The issue was that they didn't have a notarized letter signed by each of the boy's parents permitting the 10-year-old to travel overseas with his grandparents. The flight attendant cited human trafficking concerns in Belize as her reasoning, Eicher said.
They had 45 minutes before the plane departed without them.
"We told the supervisor that we could have [the letter] by the time the flight landed in Belize, but she said Belize Customs officials would not let us off the plane without it," Eicher recounted. "We told her we were willing to take that chance."
Southwest Airlines would not budge and the Eichers watched the plane take off.
They managed to get the letter two hours later and got on a flight from Atlanta to Belize, maneuvering the border control lines without a problem. They lost a day of traveling and meetings with the wedding planners, but Eicher still got to walk his little girl down the aisle.
Now, Eicher is wondering whether the Houston Hobby Southwest supervisor stepped outside the bounds in denying them travel.
Eicher put WUSA9's Verify team up to the task.
First, we reached out to the Bureau of Consular Affairs, a subsection of the U.S. State Department. Kevin Brosnahan explained a minor consent form isn't required to leave the country.
"The United States does not require a consent form for those departing the United States," Brosnahan said. "Many countries, however, require it to enter – and airlines may require this document in order to board a flight to that country. We suggest that travelers in this situation check with the embassy of the country they are visiting."
Verify checked with the U.S. Embassy in Belize and discovered the permission slip is required upon entering because Belize has a riddled history of human trafficking and child abduction by a single parent. This is why a letter notarized by both parents is required.
Belize is considered a Tier 3 country, meaning its government does not fully meet the minimum standards and is not making significant efforts to do so, according to the State Department's June 2017 Trafficking Report.
"When children are not traveling with both parents, immigration officials often request documentation to establish the children are traveling with the permission of both parents. Such documentation may include notarized letters from the parent(s), custody or adoption papers, or death certificates in situations where one or both parents are deceased," according to the Belize Embassy.
Eicher claims he traveled once before to Belize with his grandson in October 2016. They didn't have a letter then, and they left from the Belize airport without conflict.
But even though the Belize government says they require children to have these permission slips when traveling with anyone other than both parents, a Southwest flight outbound from the States cannot deny passage without it.
"No, the customers are allowed to travel. Our employees are encouraged to use and/or direct customers to the international travel page on Southwest.com where they can find details of the documentation requirements for a specific destination," said Southwest spokeswoman Lisa Tiller.
If you get caught at a foreign customs, Southwest has to pay for you to come home.
"Yes, per our policies based on the Immigration and Nationalization Act Section 241 and specific to customers missing required documentation, when a local authority requests that Southwest Airlines transport inadmissible customers it is the responsibility of Southwest Airlines to pay for his/her travel out of the country," Tiller said.
So, we can Verify that an airline cannot bar you from boarding without the notarized letter, but being prepared and having the letter is advised.