Bob is the citizen of countries A and B. His passports are in different names. Both A and B are fine with dual citizenship but citizens of A need a visa to enter B, and vice versa.

Bob books a flight from A to B via C which requires a transit visa for citizens of B but not A (think of A being New Zealand, C being Australia and B being say Mali).

Bob attempts to do things right and books the flight in the most appropriate passport. He does his research by asking questions on TravelSE like this one.

Nevertheless, despite showing both passports at check-in, he is denied boarding because neither of his passports allows to both enter B and transit via C (e.g. the airline says that details need to be entered into the system for the whole itinerary but they can't enter two passports, let alone in different names) (pure hypothetical). Money is lost.

In New Zealand, would Bob have a case to claim damages from the airline?

  • Without an actual jurisdiction, this question is impossible to answer. Airline liability for refusal of boarding is almost as diverse as the number of countries in the world, and also dependent on the details of the booking and refusal.
    – user4657
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 0:22
  • @Nij Okay let it be New Zealand.
    – Greendrake
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 1:16

2 Answers 2


Probably No.

To the extent that the airline is enforcing immigrations laws, it is likely doing so at the direction of a government official or government regulations, or sometimes as an actual agent of the government.

Essentially, in the first instance, the airline would have an illegality defense to a claim for breach of contract. An airline can't be found to have breached a contract if doing so would require it to do something illegal, and the airline would take the position that it has been asked to do something illegal, even if it is not particularly nefarious if it interprets relevant government regulations as prohibiting the proposed travel.

In the second instance, the government for whom the airline was acting as an agent might have liability, but the airline, as a disclosed agent, would not have liability for acts it was directed to carry out by the principal who would be the government. And, while the government itself might not be immune from liability in New Zealand, the government would probably be entitled to some deference when interpreting its own regulations of international commercial air traffic in a context that is likely to present an issue of first impression as far as case law is concerned. I also strongly suspect that the government (indeed, for that matter, the governments of A, and B, and C simultaneously) would be entitled to intervene in the civil case to express its opinion on the meaning of the relevant regulations to similar effect, even if the illegality defense, rather than an agency theory, were presented.

Perhaps, there would be a claim for restitution or unjust enrichment, even though the contract failed, because the airline arguably provided nothing in exchange for the fare and was unjustly enriched by taking the money and providing nothing, even though it didn't breach any contractual right. Restitution is routinely available when non-fault based grounds for rescission of a contract are present.

If the transaction could be characterized as rescission by the airline in its discretion, arguably there would be a right to get the money back, or at least, to apply the funds paid as credit towards another flight in a manner similar to the way that someone would if a flight is canceled due to weather or some similar reason, in the discretion of the airline.

As a practical matter, however, this might very well cost more to litigate and more time and effort on behalf of the customer, than the amount in controversy would justify. A successful lawsuit would easily involve $30,000+ of specialty lawyer time to litigate, might be subject to arbitration (would could cut either way), and would be a poor candidate for a class action as the facts are so esoteric.

This argument gets weaker if buried in the fine print of the contract adopted by reference in the ticket purchase there is a "no refunds under any circumstances" clause and a "customer is responsible for determining a right to travel under applicable immigration laws" disclaim of some kind in there.

The right to a refund gets stronger if the tickets were refundable or changeable.

And, if the trip was insured, there would probably be a valid travel insurance claim to get the money spent on the trip back, although one would have to carefully look at the definitions of an insured loss and of exclusions to the policy to be sure.

  • I'd appreciate this answer if it was tagged the US. But in New Zealand there is no legal immunity for the government. You can sue any government body.
    – Greendrake
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 23:38
  • 1
    @Greendrake Yes and no. New Zealand still has an illegality defense to suits for breach of contract. And, if the airline is acting as a disclosed agent of the government, you might have a right to sue the government but not the airline, because disclosed agents are not generally liable for the instructions of their principal.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 23:40
  • I do not see how illegality defense works here. It is perfectly legal for Bob to arrive and remain in all the countries involved (using the right passport for each). It is perfectly legal for him to be named Bob in one passport and Rob in the other. If the airline cannot accommodate this in their systems that is not an illegality defense.
    – Greendrake
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 2:05
  • @Greendrake I don't agree that it is perfectly legal. It isn't at all obvious that it is legal for an airline to book a single trip to one passenger with two separate names and passports. And, usually, the applicable law will be a regulation in the jurisdiction where a commercial airline is organized or operates telling it how to impose passport restrictions on prospective international passengers which may not authorize it to do everything that the affected immigration officials would allow. In part, this is simply because regulations are often written in a thoughtless and unimaginative way.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 2:12
  • @Greendrake Historically, these kinds of strategies to deal with immigration and emigration restrictions (e.g. the U.S. Cuban travel embargo and certain kinds of travel to Israel by nationals of countries that forbid that) have been managed by travelers by booking separate legs of the trip independently with separate carriers, so that no one carrier is forced to deal with a dual status on a single trip passenger.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 2:13

The question is not if the airline is wrong, the question is if they are negligent

If the airline has a reasonable belief that the trip is unlawful then they are within their legal obligations to stop Bob boarding.

In arriving at their belief, providing they acted within the law and their own policies and made reasonable enquires within the time constraints, they won’t be negligent.

Notwithstanding, subject to consumer protection law, airlines have a right to terminate the contract for any or no reason because they write the contract and it invariably says this.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Dale M
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 0:52

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