Joe Bates discovers that airlines continue to clock up fines for boarding passengers without the correct documentation despite a much-improved performance in the last few years

If you thought that passengers traveling with the incorrect documentation was a minor issue for the world’s carriers, think again. The 60,000 travelers turned back at destination or transfer points by immigration authorities each year cost the world’s airlines a substantial amount of money in fines and associated costs.

Fines average out at $3,500 per passenger, and airlines then have to fly the incorrectly documented traveler back to their country of origin at their own expense, potentially taking a seat on a fight that they could have sold to a fare-paying passenger.

IATA’s research indicates that one in every 25,000 international passengers boards a flight with the incorrect documentation, resulting in a fine for the airline. This might not sound a lot, but for a relatively small airline handling around 10 million international passengers per annum, this would mean around 400 fines yearly.

Incorrectly documented passengers obviously cost airlines in terms of fines but the expense doesn’t stop there. There is the time check-in staff spend carrying out document checks, for example, with airlines typically carrying out more in-depth checks on around 10% of their international travelers. Passengers unable to use self-service kiosks to check in at airports because of queries about their documentation add to the debits in 
the red column.

Alan Murray-Hayden, IATA’s Assistant Director of Timatic—IATA’s own software solution, which automatically provides travel documentation advice to airlines upon the swipe of a passport—notes that even a low-end cost estimate of 50 cents per passenger, based on 1.5 billion international passengers globally per year, amounts to some $750 million annually, “which is considerable.”

Mitigating circumstances

Globally, fines are going up. One European country recently introduced a €10,000 penalty, while South Africa has announced its intention to introduce a fine.

The United States alone will collect a minimum of $2.3 million in airline fines this year if Customs and Border Protection (CBP) decides to impose the current maximum penalty of $4,300 for each of the 545 violations to date in its 2016 fiscal year.

The total does not include the number of passengers that arrive with fake or forged passports, as it generally does not hold the airlines responsible for passengers traveling with fraudulently obtained travel documents.

Kenneth Sava, Director of the CBP’s Trusted Traveler Programs (Global Entry, SENTRI and NEXUS), admits: “Checking travel documents is a requirement that airlines take very seriously, and are motivated to do so as every fine impacts on their bottom line and profit margins.”

He points out, however, that the CBP looks at each case individually, and 545 violations does not necessarily mean 545 fines. “We certainly take into account an airline’s previous performance and initiatives in conjunction with CBP that improve staff training,” he says. 

“In such mitigating circumstances, fines could be automatically downgraded to a lower level and, even if a penalty is initiated, in 50% of cases it could be for a lesser amount than the maximum fine.”

This could be significant, as the CBP’s maximum fine before mitigation is due to be raised to $5,340 later this year.

Sava reveals that between 2005 and 2009 the CBP was averaging around 2,300 cases annually. He attributes the decline in numbers to the increased use and development of technology during the booking, security screening, and boarding processes.

“We are so much better equipped to check documents today than in the past, and the number of violations are low when you consider that we welcome tens of millions of international visitors every year,” adds Sava.

Verification challenges

While airlines are obligated under most countries’ legislation to ensure passengers are properly documented, this does not extend to forensic examinations using hi-tech methodology. Further, airlines argue that States are best placed to vet passenger data against security watchlists. The airline document check is normally limited to a visual examination to identify possible fraud and to ensure that a visa or other travel entitlement is present in the passport if required.

SITA’s Head of Portfolio Management for Government Solutions, Sean Farrell, says even the presence of a visa can be misleading, however. “It might be only for single use, and the passenger could have already used it,” he says. “Actually checking whether a passenger has a visa, and whether it has expired, is often very difficult for airlines.

“Further complications surround the expiry dates of travel documents, with some countries requiring at least six months left on the document or longer,” he continues. “The United States, for example, recently changed its rules and now requires all visitors from visa waiver countries to have an e-passport.”

IATA’s Murray-Hayden confirms that not having a visa or invalid visas, passports not being valid for long enough, and not having a return or onward ticket are the three most common reasons for being refused entry to a country, and account for 95% of all airline fines.

“Let’s just take the example of the Netherlands,” he suggests. “An Irish passport needs to be valid on arrival. An Australian, on the other hand, needs to have a passport that is valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay.

“However, German and French citizens can travel to the Netherlands with an expired passport of up to one year and an Austrian with an expired passport of up to five years,” adds Murray-Hayden. “The rules are entirely dependent on your nationality, and this is very common.”


On some routes, it has become increasingly common for an airline to introduce an additional check at the boarding gate to try and ensure that nobody slips through the net. 

To help the airlines further, IATA has developed its own software solution, Timatic, which automatically provides travel documentation advice to airlines upon the swipe of a passport.

There is little doubt, though, that governments continue to view this as an airline’s responsibility.

CPB’s Sava says airlines are perfectly capable of checking the validity of passports. “Having said that, let me be clear in saying that we do not expect them to be experts in identifying fraudulent documents,” he notes. “So, if a passenger appears to have valid documents but they turn out to be counterfeit or obtained by fraud, there would generally not be a penalty against the carrier.”

He notes that CBP provides regular document verification training for airline staff and sends officers to a number of “key departure points” outside the US each year, in a bid to give airlines as much help and assistance as it can with regards to checking travel documents.

For more information on Timatic, go to