“Remember That Time When They Almost Didn’t Let us on the Plane…”

IMG_20160113_154928So, apparently even when you’ve schlepped your kids around to 35+ countries, that doesn’t even begin to mean that you know a little something about traveling with kids.  Yes, we got cocky.

We thought that by having traveled as much as we have, doing the research about what types of visa we needed, packing our backpacks, and taking Uber to the airport, that the rest of our day would be all about choosing between chicken and pasta, or which movies to watch. We were wrong.

We arrived at the Seattle airport this afternoon almost three hours early, checked in, arranged our seat assignments, and headed to the gate. Security was a breeze. No problem, right?

Wrong. Less than an hour before the flight was scheduled to leave, we were approached by the gate agent asking us if we could provide original birth certificates for both of the boys. Huh?  Never in the whole trip around the world were we ever asked for original birth certificates.  After all, the boys have passports, which happen to require birth certificates to attain. In fact they have two passports each.

It turns out that since our last visit to South Africa 18 months ago, they have changed the requirements for entry with minors. So in all of our research, we hadn’t thought to check that.  We had made sure we had passports, looked into visa requirements, and thought we’d dotted all our i’s and dotted all our t’s. Nope. Not enough. Here we were, 45 minutes before our 6pm flight at the gate, and we were without the documentation we needed to fly.

As many of you know, during our one year trip around the world, we hit 25 countries with the boys.  All countries have their own rules; yet, never once were we asked for any documentation other than passports and/or possibly a visa. The gate agent explained that we needed them.  We were able to pull up copies of their birth certificates on our computers and had their Italian passports which include in them the names of each of the boys’ parents. Unlike our last trip when we traveled sans cell phones, this time we had the advantage of Google at our fingertips.  A quick search on South African government site taught us that if we have passport documentation of the boys’ parents (as is also the case with Indian passports), we were good to go. Unfortunately the supervisor of British Airlines had been given different instructions. With her clipboard and spreadsheets, she showed us the rules for letting us on the plane. Without original documentation, she insisted, there would be no boarding. Despite reading and re-reading the South African website together, she was adamant that her spreadsheet held the rules by which she needed to follow.

We tried to explain to the lady that we have traveled to more than 35 countries with the boys and have never once been asked for an original birth certificate.  Who carries around original birth certificates? Passengers seated nearby listened to the conversation, watching us brainstorm together as a family about what options we may have besides abandoning our flight. One couple commented on how impressed they were at our cool. Another lady commented on how we clearly were avid travelers because we were still calm as we watched all the other passengers slowly being called to board around us.

Although we had arrived at the airport around 3pm, three hours before our scheduled flight, they failed to mention this new South African law until after 5pm, Pacific Time. We had no way to confirm. There was no longer any embassy in the U.S. still open. We considered calling a different embassy in Europe. No, it was 3am there. We thought of calling South Africa directly. No, it was 4am there.  With some quick calculations we figured out it was business hours in Asia. So, we tried to attain answers calling the South African embassy in Tokyo. An answer!  Woohoo!  So, while Kathrin was busy on the telephone with Tokyo, Nathan was processing answers and options with the gate supervisor. At this point, we were pulling out American passports, Italian passports, and Kathrin was on the telephone speaking Japanese, all with more than six agents surround us wondering whether we would be boarding before take-off.

Our heads were spinning with what our options were.  Would they even let us on this plane?  Would we be stranded at our London layover, not able to board the next plane?  And, although we were flying out of Sea-Tac airport in Seattle, any original birth certificate paperwork was in Portland, more than three hours away. Should we scrap the flight to London and drive down to Portland for birth certificates? All of the agents were telling us that would be our only option.  We didn’t want to give up. All of us were convinced there must be options other than postponing.

Imagine the scene now… every single passenger had boarded, except us. The entire gate area was quiet. We were being observed by at least six gate and flight agents as we discussed our options, referencing the South African website and the supervisor’s British Airlines spreadsheet.  The tension was incredible.

Finally, the supervisor reluctantly admitted that according to the South African government site, that the boys’ Italian passports which, inside the front cover, list their parents’ names should in fact be sufficient.

Then another caveat….   The boys’ mother’s name listed was Kathrin’s maiden name.  Unlike U.S. paperwork, the Italian government tends to leave everything in a woman’s maiden name – which did not match Kathrin’s passport!  Again, the supervisor objected. Luckily, we were able to pull up an electronic copy also of our marriage certificate.  Would that be enough?

Meanwhile, Kathrin got disconnected from Tokyo. She tried again. The only person in the Tokyo office who can confirm the new South African law was out.  Sigh.

At this point, there were only a few remaining minutes before the gate door was to be sealed, and we were still sitting out in the gate area.  Finally, just seconds before the doors closed, the BA supervisor reread the website and decided we had enough documentation with us to go on.

As we maneuvered to our seats at the very rear of the airplane, our heads were still spinning. We had made it!  A couple other passengers let out a cheer. We were onboard.

IMG_20160113_185852Once we were actually en route and in the air with a glass of wine in our hands, we laughed. It was all a part of the adventure of family travel. After all, the difference between a calamity and an adventure is simply attitude, right?

Well, we’ve officially added another grand adventure to our list! (Albeit a little too much adventure for my taste…)IMG_20160115_074036

As I post this, we’ve officially been allowed into Cape Town.

So, now, let’s go see South Africa!Kite Surfers in front of Table Mountain

Kite Surfers in front of Table Mountain

6 thoughts on ““Remember That Time When They Almost Didn’t Let us on the Plane…”

  1. Kris Preslan

    I couldn’t read this whole article fast enough to get to the part where it said you were boarding. I’d have had a coronary event at the airport. I knew from a photo that you had made it to Cape Town, but it didn’t stop me from becoming an every growing basket case while reading this.
    Bye……off to have a glass of wine.

    1. Kathrin Post author

      Do you suppose there was a reason we didn’t tell you until after we landed (and entered!) Cape Town? 😉

  2. Lara

    I am impressed by your quick thinking! I would not have come up with as many alternatives for finding the information you needed as you did (nor would I have had the language skills to maneuver it). Bravo! I’m glad you were able to start your trip as planned.

  3. Sukey Lupton

    I heard your interview on Family Adventure Podcast. Our families are sympatico–we live in SE PDX and are planning a “sabbatical” from life beginning Aug 2017. We are going to SE Asia and are retracing many of your steps. My children are 8 and 10. I would really love to connect with you. Are you resettled in the Pacific NW? or elsewhere. I look forward to reading through your adventures!


  4. Jennifer M Pearce

    Hi Kathrin! Oh my gosh! This is good info to know. We’re thinking we might possibly head to Africa before too long and we wouldn’t have been prepared for such a situation as this. Good thinking on all those ideas to solve the problem! Excited to hear you’ll be at WDS with us in Portland! See you soon!

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