A Pressing Passport Matter
This is the story of what happened to me when I was flying to Austria for DeepSec (and to spend time vacationing with my fiancee and my parents) in November of 2016. I tell it here, lest it happen to you!
Let me state for the record, right off the bat, that I should have known better. I am a seasoned traveler. I know rules and regs regarding almost all aspects of air travel, international borders, mileage, connections, visas, and on down the line. But, we all make mistakes. Here's what happened...
I had been on pretty medium-to-heavy travel for much of 2016 (about 50% of the time, I'd say) and I recognized that my passport was going to expire soon (in late January of 2017) and I planned to renew it when I had the time. But to do so requires a period of weeks with the passport out of my hands and I didn't have big breaks in my travel like that. I kept pushing it off, saying to myself "as soon as I'm back from Austria in November -- the last international bounce of the year for me -- I'll send everything in."
We arrived in the airport for our flight to Austria. My parents were going wheels-up that same day from Philadelphia and were meeting us in Vienna for time in the city when Tarah and I weren't at the conference itself.
Imagine my shock (and horror, frankly) when the automated kiosk informed me that my passport wasn't valid for travel to Europe! I checked it a couple of times... no dice. We proceeded to the staff at the counter...
The Delta reps (both front-line staff and at least one Red Coat supervisor) were all quite certain that I wasn't able to fly. "Your passport doesn't have enough validity on it," I was told. "It must have at least 90 days left on it from the expected end of your trip." I informed them (and even showed them) that while the EU states passengers should have three months of validity on their document, it's not mandatory.
"Well, in our system, there is no workaround for the 90 day requirement," they said. "Without enough time on the passport, we can't check you in. Even if we could, we'd be in major trouble with corporate." I explained that Tarah had checked us in online the night before. No dice.
Then I was struck with a thought, which I mentioned out loud... "Wait a minute," I said. "Not more than two weeks ago, you checked me in at this very same airport (I even recognized some of the same staff members) for a flight to Belgium." Sure enough, the manager and her one assistant remembered me clearly. We did some quick math. That trip was also inside of the 90-day window. I had only 75 days left on my passport at that time.
Everyone was shocked. Tarah and I took the position that someone must have done something last time to get me on the plane. "Do the same magic again," we entreated. Still no luck. Many alternate routes were examined. "Even if you can get me to London, maybe I can connect to some other airport with the schengen area from there," I offered. Nope. No connections, no routes, no entry to the EU... not via commercial air carriers.
As everyone continued to work the phones and speak to supervisors and Delta Ops (all the staff really was awesome about trying to get this matter fixed) I finally looked up from my phone as if a lightbulb popped over my head.
"Oh, I think I know what happened two weeks ago," I said.
Everyone else froze, looked up from their terminals, and quizzically hoped for an explanation. "I was in the middle of a multi-city journey when you last saw me. When flying to Brussels, I had been about 3/4 through something like a 12-city, 21-segment itinerary. I had 'checked-in' for this travel back in August and the itinerary was 'live' at that point, I suspect. The passport validity check must only happen apparently during the initial airport departure."
Everyone was wowed by this, but that seemed like the only valid explanation.
So, I wasn't getting on that flight. I had to attempt to visit the passport office downtown (thank GOD I live in a proper city nowadays... imagine how fucked we all would have been if I was still in a place like Montana!) for an "emergency appointment" if I could schedule it. We hauled out of the airport as fast as we could go in a Lyft...
...all the while I was attempting to use the State Department's awful online appointment scheduling system via my smartphone. I secured the "last" appointment of the day, for 13:00. I called the office, explaining that this was 12 minutes away, and begging them to let me arrive a few minutes late. "What if I were to get there at 13:15 or 13:20?" I asked. "We can't promise anything," was the reply. Gulp.
I had mentioned above that it was always my plan to renew everything after the DeepSec trip. I am so lucky that I was prepared for this. I had already downloaded, filled out, and even printed my DS-82 form. I already had photos from a nearby drug store. All of this was on my desk at home.
As soon as the Uber pulled up, I ran upstairs. Tarah put our luggage in the garage and backed out my Pathfinder. I hopped in and she drove at what may have been something over the legally posted speed limit on highways and city streets in order to get me to the federal building at 13:17.
We arrived, and I ran into the front entry as she pulled away to find a spot for parking. Of course, it's a State Dept. office so security was high. Thankfully, coming right from an airport, I had already shed my knives and other whatnot earlier that day.
Inside there was something of a DMV-style system, with tickets and numbers and announcement boards, etc. The guards allowed me to enter and sit, even though I was technically late. Eventually, I was seen by Joe at the counter who couldn't have been nicer and quicker. He took my paperwork, my $200 payment, and within minutes was telling me that everything would be handled.
I was told to come back in 90 minutes to pick up my fresh, new passport! Tarah and I grabbed a bite to eat next-door, and a short while later, I went back through the security checkpoint in order to enter the federal building. Heh, this time, the guards noticed lockpicks in my wallet (I have a Bogota Pi set at all times from SEREpick) and I had to hand that to Tarah.
I was seen almost right away upstairs at the same window as before, and my brand-new passport was given to me with no hassle and no fuss. I don't ever recommend anyone putting themselves through the stress of this process, but if you have upcoming travel that is weeks or even days away, getting an "emergency" passport issued isn't all that daunting. This wasn't one of those "valid only for six months" temporary passports, either. This was a fully-featured, brand new passport (complete with extra pages, which I always wind up needing) in about two hours.
So all in all, life worked out. We didn't get to spend time with my parents on that first day... but they just walked around Vienna themselves and were perfectly capable and comfortable. I met up with them that evening.
Spending time at DeepSec was great, and the rest of the time in Vienna with Mom, Dad, and of course Tarah was utterly wonderful.
Have fun, travel well, and stay safe out there, everybody!