Refused Boarding (& We Were Only in Transit!)

Trip Start Feb 01, 2005
Trip End Dec 31, 2020

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Where I stayed
Kolonna Hotel Riga
Read my review - 4/5 stars
What I did
Hung out in UNESCO old town.

Flag of Latvia  ,
Friday, June 3, 2011

Here we are in the beautiful city of Riga, Latvia -  by default.

Now you might be thinking there has to be a story to this! Our motto is "Whatever happens travel gives you a story to tell".

So hear is the story....

It has been quite a harrowing 24 hours of arguing with airline staff who have been mostly unhelpful and liaising with 3 different Gap Adventures staff who have been incredibly helpful.

We booked a GAP Adventures tour of Uzbekistan some time ago and separately booked our flight to Tashkent, the joining city for the tour, over the Internet with the budget airline Air Baltic. It was way cheaper than other airlines but it meant rather than the shorter distance of a direct flight, Istanbul to Tashkent, we would have to transit through Riga in Latvia back the other way. GAP Adventures sent us a "Letter of Invitation" known as a LOI from their Uzbekistan agency which we were to present at the airport on arrival in Uzbekistan, and swap this for our visa. This is the only possible procedure for Australians as we do not have an Uzbekistan embassy.

Arriving early at the check in counter in Istanbul, for the first flight to Riga, our LOI were queried and we were asked questions. Several phone calls were made, then a supervisor was called and we had to stand aside. We used to often wonder why some people had to wait at check in counters, now we know! After a full 30 minutes our documentation was returned and the check in girl said she could check us all the way to Tashkent and yes, our paperwork was fine. They took copies of everything including our GAP itinerary.

On arrival in Riga our "transit only" airport the fun really began.

Firstly we had only half an hour to transit. Riga is a huge terminal, as all Air Baltic flights transit here. We were rushed through a baggage scanner check by airline staff. In all the panic, I loaded my backpack and didn't wait for the computer bag! We were on the terminal transfer bus when I had that sickening feeling that something was missing. The airline staffer on the bus with us who had been hurrying us through, radioed through straight away and YES! it was still there and they would rush it to the terminal. It was now only minutes before the time of departure.

We queued up to board with our boarding passes we had received back in Istanbul, but the staffer told us to stand aside. Phone calls were made after everyone else had boarded and we were told our paperwork was not in order and we should have had an additional square stamp on our LOI. We tried to explain that our LOI had been thoroughly checked in Istanbul and that is why we had boarding passes. A sympathetic fellow passenger who could read Uzbekistan said our LOI says the visas are to be picked up at the border. However the staff countered showing a LOI of another passenger with an extra stamp.

The staff were adamant we did not have the correct paperwork, the door closed and we were no longer going to Uzbekistan!

We were taken back to the main part of the airport by bus, feeling a little bit like criminals! A staff member took us first through arrivals so we could officially arrive into Riga then to the Air Baltic office so we could work out what to do. We were feeling a bit shell shocked and incredulous at this stage. The office staff were extremely unhelpful to the point of rudeness so we got out our GAP Adventures paperwork and called the emergency number. After all it was GAP who had provided us with the paperwork to travel.

We spoke to Masha first who grasped the problem straight away, even though it was 1am in Bangkok where she was. She got in contact with the Uzbekistan guide, Laziz, and a dialogue began of how we could move on from here. Laziz the guide asked if he could speak to the Air Baltic Shift manager, but he was very rude to us and refused to speak to Laziz who wanted to explain to him about our LOI. The Shift manager would not give us his name and would only give us a feedback form to fill in. We immediately went online in the airport and registered our complaint. Laziz said he would go to the airport consulate (in Tashkent) the next day and try to get something else to convince Air Baltic to let us fly, but even so the next flight was not until Monday, 3 days away. Masha, told us to go and get a hotel for the night, it was now quite late so we had a meal (and a much needed bottle of red) at the airport and walked despondently towards a hotel sign we could see in the distance

The next morning by 10.00am, true to his word, Laziz had another document emailed to us which we got hotel reception to print and walked back to the airport to do battle. A new shift manager was on but she was just as unhelpful, saying the paperwork was still not correct and we would have to go and check with the supervisor of check in. Luckily this time the supervisor of check in was a lovely empathetic lady who didn't immediately dismiss us. We carefully explained how Istanbul had checked our paperwork, which said we were picking up our visas at Tashkent, our Uzbekistan guide knows the visas are there, this is the only paperwork Gap Adventures use for all their travellers, we are Australians who don't have an Uzbekistan embassy etc., etc. etc.

"But you don't have the square stamp!"

Keeping ourselves calm (with difficulty), we asked her if she would PLEASE speak with our Uzbekistan guide if we got him on the phone. She eventualy (against protocol) agreed! The conversation in itself did not immediately get a change in stance but after she got off the phone she said she would check with someone else, who could then check with the consulate at the Tashkent airport. Back to sitting down and waiting but with a little more hope. Laziz rang to say if need be he would get a letter saying if we were deported on arrival in Uzbekistan, Gap Adventures would pay all costs.

We waited.

Katerina, the check in supervisor, came back smiling. A good sign. Yes, she said our visas are waiting for us at the airport. It has taken nearly 24 hours to get to this, even though we were telling them all along and our paperwork says so. (admittedly in Uzbekistan!) Further she would send copies of all our paperwork to the gate for Mondays flight with a notation that we were OK to fly. She didn't know if their would be any assistance financially to get our new tickets but suggested we ask the Air Baltic office. OK back to the unhelpful staff to try our luck. 

We used the name of the supervisor of check in and explained that now we needed a new flight but given it was their mistake we didn't want to pay. She said she would speak to someone higher up and we had to wait again.

When we went back to the desk there was a completely different attitude. Had our complaint email been read? Had the mention of the check in supervisor's name held sway? Who knows? We were told we would be flown at no cost on Monday to Tashkent and we didn't even have to wait for the evening Air Baltic flight. They would put us on a Uzbekistan Airways flight they code share with in the morning, if we wanted! No liability accepted of course - it was still our fault, apparently, for having such a tight connection! We pointed out we didn't choose the tight connection, that is what the flights come up as on the Internet booking engine.

Anyway, all sorted (we hope) and now we can enjoy Riga a beautiful city. The place is buzzing with music and restaurants and we have a hotel right in the centre of old town where we could view the UNESCO listed buildings metres from our hotel.

The old city is full of beautiful buildings, cobblestone streets, and, unfortunately, weekend tourists. With cheap air flights available around Europe now, places like Riga are a weekend away from many parts of Europe. We chatted to a couple from Stockholm who were having a weekend away in Riga. Weather wise it is perfect for wandering around the historic sights and it stays light until around 11pm.

So next, we hope to be able to join our group tour in Uzbekistan albeit a few days late. 

Travel Recommendation: As a postscript we can totally confirm the professionalism shown by Gap staff and head office. We were extremely pleased with the effort made to ensure the disruption to our tour was minimal, and that all extraneous expenses we occured were reimbursed.

Footnote: Historic Centre of Riga is UNESCO World Heritage Listed.

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