In our quest to travel to every corner of the globe, the hubby and I have long been eyeing Australia as our next potential destination. But the distance and cost involved meant Australia was always bumped lower and lower on our priority list.
That is until September 2016. After 3 odd years of contemplating a visit there, we finally took the leap and applied for an Australian visit visa.
Visas. Visas. Visas.
We applied through VFS in Abu Dhabi and paid a whopping AED 600/- per person for a 1 year multiple entry visa. In contrast, our 10-year, multiple entry US visa only cost us a little over AED 500/-. The process however, was relatively fast and we had no issues getting a next-day appointment and submitting our documents at VFS.
Eventually, thanks to some follow-up due to our fast approaching travel date we managed to get our visa after only 5 working days. We were amazed at the speed with which the visa was processed seeing as we are used to VFS taking anywhere between 2-3 weeks for visa processing to some European countries that it services. With visa in hand we were ready to start planning our 2 week trip to Australia.
The Gory Details
Those of you who follow me on Instagram (And if you don’t, what are you waiting for?) may remember this post.
As promised, here are the details of the rocky start to our Great Australian Adventure. I warn you this is going to be a long post. But I did want to put this out there so that it might save at least one other person from all the hassle that we went through.
We managed to find tickets from Dubai to Melbourne with a 12h35m stop in Manila for only around AED 2,600. This was a great deal considering that most other flights for our travel dates were in the 4K+ range.
Granted, most people would think you have to be absolutely nuts to opt for a flight with a 12 hour layover. But we are not most people. The Philippines has always been on my radar as a great travel destination and we welcomed the opportunity to spend a few precious hours in yet another country on our travel wish list. The icing on the cake was that we would land in Manila on the morning of our anniversary. I was beyond excited about this and planned a day-trip from Manila airport as a surprise for the hubby. I did all my research about the place (including where we would have lunch and snacks!) and arranged a tour guide to meet us at the airport so we could get started on our mini trip as soon as we landed.
With everything in place, all we had to do was show up at the airport and catch our flight. Or so we thought.
Time is money
Now, those who know us personally will laugh out loud when I mention that the hubby and I are not exactly known for our promptness. I cannot lie. We have, in the past, missed flights (yes, multiple flights) due to our tardiness. And this was a flight from Dubai on the cusp of the Eid holidays, one of the busiest travel periods in the UAE calendar. I was determined that nothing would destroy my anniversary surprise. So we made sure to leave for Dubai International Airport extra early. In fact, we were at the airport well before the counter for our Philippine Airlines flight even opened! A definite first for our little family.
The problems begin
After waiting for a while, we finally got to the counter and the agent at the desk started to check our passports, visas and flight details. Hubster’s check was completed promptly and he was cleared, but when they started to look into my paperwork they hit some sort of a snag. We were soon told that I was not given an “OK to board” message from the Australian immigration. We brushed it off as “must be a system error” and asked them to check again. But after multiple tries, we were told that I was simply not getting the OK to Board message and that a boarding pass could not be issued for me. To make matters worse, Hubby who until that point had no issue, was also now not getting the elusive OK to Board. Mystery, much?
The staff were utterly flummoxed by this turn of events and even the Airport Manager for Philippine Airlines could not seem to fix the issue. They confirmed that there was absolutely no issue with our visas and yet for some unfathomable reason we were being denied boarding. We were most unhelpfully told to approach the embassy to enquire what the issue was. Mind you this was at 7pm in a country where most embassies close at 3pm – On the eve of a 9 day holiday no less!
We were then asked to move to another counter. Once again attempts were made from multiple check-in terminals but with no positive results. We were then told to step aside and that our issue would be revisited once the other passengers had been cleared. By this time we had started to get really worried. We were getting closer and closer to the gate closing time. All around us passengers were breezing through check-in while we were left languishing on the sidelines with the very real possibility of us missing our flight. We waited patiently until the crowds thinned and once again approached the counters for help.
We tried and tried
Multiple attempts were again made by the staff, but no matter what they tried nothing seemed to work.
They tried entering our names in the system differently – No luck.
We asked to be allowed to travel to Manila. The reasoning being that since it was supposedly an Australian immigration issue we could perhaps salvage our holiday by spending it in Manila instead. Or maybe we could even sort out the immigration issue once we landed in Manila. But even this was not possible.
We asked if we could book any other one way flight and use the return leg of our existing booking. Again, this was a resounding NO.
To rub salt in the wound, we were told that our case would be treated as a No-Show (after showing up at the airport more than 3 hours before the flight!) and that we would not be entitled for any refunds on our unused tickets as they were non-refundable bookings.
The not-so-grand finale
Imagine our utter dismay when the Airport Manager finally told us it was impossible to let us board. As we stood there in disbelief, he picked up his walkie-talkie and radioed ahead that all passengers had been cleared and that the gate could be closed! I cannot even begin to describe what went through our minds and hearts at that moment. Visions of our crumbling vacation plans flashed through my mind. My special anniversary surprise was now in utter shambles. Not to mention the umpteen bookings for domestic flights and hotels that we had made in Australia. The worst part was not having any clue as to why this had happened. We were absolutely powerless to change the course of events and had no idea who was to be held responsible for this nightmare.
We mournfully walked around the airport wondering what to do next. Can you even imagine what it felt like lugging our suitcases around an airport when we knew we weren’t going on that planned vacation? Because yes, at one point we considered cancelling the entire trip altogether. But with all the non-refundable bookings we had already made in Australia, this was simply not an option. We had no choice but to simply book another ticket and risk facing the same issue again. We were advised to contact Emirates airlines who might be able to check the immigration status for us before we purchased the next ticket.
A ray of hope
We approached the Emirates staff who took one look at our passports and immediately identified the problem. The reason for being denied boarding was also confirmed by the Emirates staff with a quick phone call to the immigration authorities.
And here, my lovely readers, is where I come to the crux of this long-winded rant. Apparently older Indian passports list a person’s entire name on one line under the field Given Name. However our Australian visa applications had our First, Middle and Last names under separate fields. So naturally the Immigration system flags this name mismatch, automatically assumes the worst and does not give the passenger an OK to Board message.
Root cause analysis
There was a dreadful lack of clarity and knowledge on both the Immigration side as well as from the airline. We were told that this is an issue that repeatedly crops up with passports where Given/Last names in the visas and passports do not match and that the Immigration outright denies boarding without any explanation whatsoever.
Is it too much to ask for a brief message in the Immigration “system” that boarding is being denied due to a mismatched name? The airline would then know what the problem was and could take the necessary steps to correct/verify this. But instead passengers are left at the mercy of clueless airline staff and are made to endure unnecessary heartache and expense.
Which brings me to my second bone of contention. Unlike Philippine Airlines, Emirates Airlines knew exactly what needed to be done to resolve our issue. With direct flights to Australia, I can only assume they have come across this problem numerous times and knew that all it would take was a two minute phone call to sort it out. It is the airline’s responsibility to be aware of potential issues at their destinations and to be prepared for this. If the Philippine Airlines staff had been more knowledgeable or had at least attempted to contact their office in Manila for clarification, we would have been on that plane and would not have spent our anniversary eve wallowing in an airport for over 8 hours.
What we were forced to do
We eventually wound up booking new return flights to Melbourne on Qatar Airways for the following evening, this time from Maktoum airport. Needless to say we had to spend way more on tickets than we originally budgeted for. That’s kinda what happens when you book flights to Australia on the day of the flight!
We had to spend the day in Dubai (a melancholy anniversary indeed) and make our way to the airport, once again before the counter opened. Qatar Airways also faced the same issue with getting us an OK to Board message but after a few phone calls this was resolved and finally we were on our way to start our Australian Adventure.
We are currently in the process of coordinating with Tripsta to get a full refund for our tickets. At the date of publishing this post, we are yet to receive any money. No mention has been made of compensating us for our lost time, the ruined anniversary plans, our extra night stay in Dubai and all the shuttling back and forth we had to do – not to mention the sheer anguish of seeing your best laid travel plans being blown to smithereens. Thank you Philippine Airlines. Thank you.
What is the point
My primary intention in writing this post is to spread awareness about this issue so that no one else has to endure what we went through. Had we had known beforehand, perhaps we could have relayed this information to the airline staff and we could have caught our flight after all. If you have friends who are planning a trip to Australia, I urge you to spread this information to them so that they are aware just in case things go wrong. After all, forewarned is forearmed, right?
All said and done, we lost the first couple of days of our trip but the rest of our stay in Australia went pretty much as planned. Stay tuned for future posts about our Great Australian Adventure.
Until next time…