I’ve traveled a lot in my 29 years. Those travel experiences have ranged from sublime–Dom Perignon and a shower at 38,000 feet on Emirates–to downright dreadful–being thrown up on by a stranger two hours into a nine-hour transatlantic flight. Three days ago, I had the worst travel experience of my life, by far.
Last week, a close friend, Zeke, suddenly passed away. He was the most joyful and passionate person I’ve ever met, a vibrating, glowing ball of positive energy, and my world is darker without him. I’ll miss him more than I can put into words.
When I got news of Zeke’s passing, I was visiting friends in Stockholm. As soon as I received the phone call late Thursday night, I booked a flight early the next morning back to New York through Munich in order to make it to his funeral on Sunday. After booking the flight, I remembered that I only had my British passport with me in Stockholm, not my American passport, which I had left in Frankfurt at my apartment. That’s an issue because American citizens are required to travel to the US on their American passport, even if they’re dual citizens with another valid passport (and why, if you’re a dual citizen, it’s always a good idea to have both passports on you in case you need to travel urgently). I hadn’t anticipated needing to go back to the US from Stockholm for an emergency, so I hadn’t bothered grabbing my US passport when I left Frankfurt.
A bit of very important background before we continue: a few years ago, I was traveling back from London to New York after visiting family. The morning before my flight, I couldn’t find my US passport and, after an hour of searching furiously, aware that American citizens are required to travel to the US on their American passports, I decided to go to the airport early with just my British passport and see whether there was anything that could be done. Fortunately, upon explaining my situation to a Delta staff member at Heathrow, a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent who works at the airport was summoned and, after asking several questions about my travel plans, gave the okay to a Delta employee to check me in for my flight. Both annoyingly and fortunately, I ended up finding my US passport in my luggage when I arrived stateside a few hours later.
Back to the story. I arrived at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport at 5 AM on Friday morning for my 7:50 departure to Munich. To my great disappointment, Arlanda does not have a DHS agent at the airport, so the only option was going to the US embassy for an emergency passport, which would mean missing my flight. I realized that the only other option to get back to the US on Friday was to fly to Heathrow, speak to a CBP agent there, and then fly on a separate ticket back to New York.
At 8 AM, I sat in the departures hall at Stockholm Arlanda Airport searching for a flight from Stockholm to Heathrow and a separate flight from Heathrow to New York. I needed to book separate flights because check-in agents wouldn’t check me in for a flight to London without a US passport if it was part of a US-bound itinerary. Eventually, I found a flight to London leaving at 11:30 AM and landing at 1:20 PM, which I booked for 20,000 Avios points and $1 in fees. That flight left me enough time to make a 6:15 PM departure from Heathrow to London aboard VS9, which I booked for $745.82 in taxes and fees and 33,200 Virgin Points.
My flight to London left on time and arrived at Heathrow at 1:15 PM. Upon deplaning, I followed signs for transfers and made my way from Terminal 5 to Terminal 3, where I approached the Virgin Atlantic transfer desk. After some back and forth with the desk agent, I was met by a supervisor who called Heathrow’s CBP agent.
I was handed the phone and spoke to someone named Vicky. She asked me a series of questions, mostly, it seemed, to establish that I was who I said I was. One of those questions was “have you ever lost your passport before?” to which my answer was “no” (if you recall earlier in the story, I misplaced my passport a few years ago but found it a few hours later in my bag, so I never considered it lost). She also asked me several details about my friend’s death, including when and how he died.
After the short conversation, I handed the phone back to the Virgin employee who was told that everything was sorted out and that she could check me in for the flight. After receiving my ticket, I made my way to the Virgin Clubhouse. At this point, I was exhausted, so I took a shower to refresh myself. In the middle of my shower, an announcement came through over the intercom asking me to “make myself known to the concierge desk.”
As I walked over to the concierge desk, I could see several Virgin employees huddled worriedly around a cell phone. When I approached, I was handed the phone and told that it was Vicky from CBP. “You lied to me!” barked Vicky from the other end of the line. I was taken aback by both the volume and the accusation.
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“You told me that you hadn’t lost your passport before but you lied. You lost it in 2020. I’m reading through my colleague’s notes now from when you last spoke to a CBP agent in Heathrow.”
“I never lost my passport. When I was traveling back from London in—”
“Don’t lie to me!” interrupted Vicky. “I’m a federal agent.”
“Okay. I just want to explain the situation to you. This is a big misunderstanding.”
“There’s no misunderstanding. You lied to me, and I’m not interested in talking to you right now. I just want you to know that I’m offloading you from this flight and marking your passport as lost. You’ll need to go to an embassy and get an emergency one.”
“Please, please, don’t offload me from this flight. A close friend of mine just died and I need to make it back in time for the funeral.”
“I don’t wanna hear it. Our conversation is over. And, by the way, I’ve revoked your Global Entry status for lying to me. Hand me back to Russell [the Virgin employee whose phone I was using].”
In total, the conversation lasted no more than a minute, but I felt powerless in a way I’d never felt before at a time when I was vulnerable and sleep deprived. I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to my friend or be there for his family, and there was nothing I could do about it. Trembling and in tears, I was escorted by Russell out through immigration and into the arrivals hall where he told me that he’d been instructed by Vicky to make sure I left the airport premises. I requested an Uber and, still stunned, decided to go to my grandparents. On the way to my grandparent’s house, I called Zeke’s brother and told him that I wouldn’t make the funeral.
Lots about this story is still unresolved. I still don’t have a replacement passport and don’t know when I’ll be able to get back to the US–even though I have a US passport in Frankfurt, my passport has now been marked lost so I can’t use it. I’m now back in Frankfurt, trying to go to the American Consulate here to figure this all out, but an appointment has proved elusive. I’m also planning on filing a complaint with the DHS about the interaction and possibly getting a lawyer involved. We’ll see how that goes.
I’m still really upset by Vicky’s lack of humanity. Even after explaining to her earlier in the day that I was going back to the US for a close friend’s funeral, after describing in detail how he died, she was unwilling to let me explain a simple misunderstanding and was gleeful in telling me not only that she was canceling my passport, but that she had revoked my Global Entry to boot.
I’ve had to remind myself frequently over the last 72 hours that people like Vicky are, thankfully, uncommon. More people are like Zeke, who extended a hand when he saw someone vulnerable and viewed them with compassion rather than suspicion. I’ll write a follow-up post when things pan out. In the meantime, I’m going to continue traveling, trying my best to live like Zeke, arms wide open to the world, energetic and hopeful even when things don’t go my way.