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This is happening to a very good friend of mine. He, his wife, and his 2-year-old son are stuck at the Abu Dhabi airport. Here is a succinct description.

The family flew out of Islamabad on Etihad Airways, flying back home to USA, with a layover in Abu Dhabi. On the flight from Islamabad to Abu Dhabi (AUH) the wife became very sick. Upon landing at AUH, she was taken to a clinic at the airport and examined. The clinic okayed her to take her flight to USA while recommending some medications. Despite this, Etihad refused to let her board, declaring her unfit and sick.

An Etihad employee told them that they have their own medical team which will not allow her to fly. Etihad is not providing any medical paperwork, proof, even a copy of her vitals, which show how sick she is. Their checked luggage was also removed from the plane. Things escalated quickly and the airport police was called.

Now (Tuesday May 24, 2022, 5:00 PM UTC) it has been more than seven hours and they have no idea when can they get to a hotel to rest or board an outbound flight. They are in the airport police holding area with little knowledge of local rules and regulations.

What recourse do they have? What can they do to help themselves and what can I do, sitting in the US, to help them?

I am in touch with them and can provide any other details as needed. At least the 2-year-old son is a US citizen, possibly all three of them are US citizens. Otherwise they are Pakistani citizens.


Updated 2022-06-03 with the details of what happened and its resolution.

Everyone has made it back home safely. They have had a chance to rest, recover, and talk to me about what happened.

The mother became sick (food poisoning) on the first leg of the flight from Islamabad. She was sick enough that flight attendants had to attend to her and a doctor, who was a passenger, had to help her. So Etihad knew how sick she was. They landed at AUH, went to the airport clinic (nothing to do with Etihad), and were cleared to fly. The family's first mistake was not to insist on getting some written evidence that she was fit to fly. Yes, it may not have helped because Etihad reserves the right to deny boarding, but still.

The mother felt better and the family tried to check-in for the next flight. She did admit to me that she alluded to her earlier sickness and was hoping (half joking half seriously) that they might upgrade her seat as a courtesy or something. Of course it backfired. The lady at the Etihad counter became suspicious and irate.

At this point, there was probably a whole bunch of miscommunication involved with the wrong tone of voice, body language, and poor word choice. No one present had English as their first language but they could communicate only in English. The family was tired, had a case of "get-there-itis", and were dreading 12+ hours nonstop flight to USA with a toddler. The lady was also very irate and maybe just had a bad week. As the story progressed, there were overtones of racism. Arabs treating Subcontinental Asians as second class citizens is well-known. Furthermore, the mother, being an American citizen, demanded more respect and refused to be treated unfairly, which probably pissed off the Etihad staff even more. Moreover, an element of face-saving was present on both sides, huge in all Asian cultures as far as I know. Once the gauntlet was thrown, neither side was going to back down.

The lady first took their passports and disappeared. Then when she came back she denied them boarding outright and told them that she had taken their luggage off the plane. This is where the family got pissed off and voices were raised. The father took out his phone and started recording a video. This is where she called the police. They showed up and told him that it is illegal here to record anything like this (recording the public, especially women without their permission). The father told the police that he was only pretending and didn't actually record anything, and yes I don't see anything posted anything on his social media or anything. The police confiscated his phone and started going through the various apps, never found anything. There was also some sexism at play here because the police refused to talk to the mother and only talked to the father. The father did apologize here repeatedly, admitting his mistake, saying that they just wanted to go home and nothing else.

The police took them away, held them in a detention center. The father is a Pakistani citizen. The mother and the toddler are American citizens. The mother contacted her family and posted privately on FB asking for help. This is how I found out. Her family contacted both the American and the Pakistani consulates. Being late at night, they both said that their representatives will show up next morning at 8am.

Not sure if the police saw their social media activity or anything but they confiscated her phone a short while later so there was no way for anyone to get in touch with them now. The mother/toddler were separated from the father; just sit quietly and no talking with anyone but they were in the same room. They couldn't go anywhere, only one trip to the bathroom and even that only with an escort; no food nor water, and not even a blanket for the toddler. They spent the entire night in the holding area. They were questioned separately at least once before the lawyers arrived. They were given papers, written entirely in Arabic, to sign, which they both refused. There was at least one iteration of good-cop bad-cop.

The lawyers showed up on time. They Americans did say that they always treat the entire family as a unit as long as there is at least one US citizen present. But ironically perhaps, it seems that in the current political/diplomatic climate, UAE is more friendly with Pakistan than it is with the USA. The family was released. No one knows if any charges were actually filed or what. The police said something about harassing/assaulting the Etihad employee but of course there was no evidence and they couldn't produce any when demanded. Also the family is not sure if there is a ban on them flying Etihad again or if there is a ban on them visiting/transiting UAE or Abu Dhabi, though we are 99% sure there is. They won't be flying Etihad or visiting Abu Dhabi anytime soon anyway.

After they were released, Etihad actually offered to fly them to the USA. After some debate and hesitation, they accepted. Etihad also offered them a hotel stay, which they also accepted. They stayed, left the next day, and made it all the way home. They are pretty shaken up, tired, angry, and want justice and revenge. But there is no actual proof that any of this actually happened except for some documentation somewhere within the State Department. To all appearances, Etihad fulfilled their contract, got them to their destination, with a free hotel stay in "good faith". So no reason to "demand" anything from anyone. No public shaming or social media shaming scheme will really work because Etihad "didn't do anything wrong". I told them I feel their pain and I would be just as angry in their place but there is nothing they can really do. They will easily be made out to be the bad guys. The employee and the police didn't even tell them the employee's name despite asking them repeatedly. So, they have nothing.

In the background, Imran Khan's recent removal as the Prime Minister of Pakistan (in April 2022) has caused a massive upheaval in Pakistan as well as in many overseas Pakistani communities. UAE has a very large Pakistani community and it has seen many protests. In fact, the very same day when the family was detained, the local Pakistani embassy released a statement saying that any kind of such protests, including social media activity, is illegal in UAE and all Pakistanis should refrain from such activity. Posting on social media and/or shaming is what the airline and the police were most "afraid of" and probably added fuel to the fire.

So make what you will but now it is just "their word" against "their word". One moral of the story here is that living in the United States, we tend to take the freedoms and liberties guaranteed here for granted. It is very easy, even for immigrants, to quickly forget, or perhaps never to be aware of them in first place, that bias based on your race, your gender, your name, your family/clan, your religion, is alive and well in the entire world, including the USA. Your passport may offer you some protection, but not always. Even if it eventually saves, you can still suffer a lot of pain before you get out. Just because the US guarantees you the right to free speech and protest, in person or on social media, it doesn't mean that the rest of the world has to do the same for you. It is not a guaranteed universal right to be treated fairly, objectively, or even with respect, decency, and common courtesy just because you are a human being. There are plenty of present day examples where even Americans at home are not immune from from such behavior by other Americans.

Travelers Beware!

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  • 37
    This is beyond what Travel.SE can help with. Have them talk to the consulate ASAP.
    – JonathanReez
    May 24 at 17:32
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    Section 7.1.2 of Etihad's Conditions of Carriage gives the airline the sole discretion to refuse carriage for health (or myriad other) reasons. The consulate may engage, but it won't be able to compel flight. May 24 at 18:03
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    @DavidSupportsMonica they won't help with that particular flight but they can help them get out of police custody. I'd focus on getting back home in any way possible rather than trying to seek "justice", even if it means buying another ticket. Fighting against local police/airlines on their home turf is a very, very bad idea.
    – JonathanReez
    May 24 at 18:06
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    Please let us know how it went...
    – RedSonja
    May 25 at 8:44
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    “Things escalated” is one way to say they probably started a shouting match May 26 at 9:41

2 Answers 2

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This is something well beyond the scope of Travel.SE as it involves a potential disaster, including jail time and an entry ban. The priorities of your friend should be:

  1. Forget about "justice" and accept that the Etihad ticket is now forfeited. Stop arguing with the police and politely tell them you'll get out of their country on the closest available flight of a different airline.
  2. Contact the US consulate and let them know about your predicament. They don't have any power over local police but they can help resolve problems amicably.
  3. Get a flight on any airline other than Etihad and leave the country as soon as possible.
  4. Once you're safely back home, contact Etihad and politely ask for a refund. If that doesn't help, see if you can politely reach out to them on social media. If that fails, see if you get a chargeback on your credit card instead.

Never try to fight airline officials, especially in a foreign country. This is not a fight you can win, as evidenced by your friends predicament. Focus on getting back home safely at all costs.

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    These are the kind of situations where using my American Express card for travel related expenses has never failed me. I would find a way to get back to the USA and the dispute the charges for the Etihad ticket for not providing the service they were contracted to supply. You can’t fight airline officials, you never win. May 24 at 19:46
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    Not that you probably want to, but most airlines I have been using have noted that they will ban you for life if you do any sort of credit card chargeback - justified or not. May 25 at 19:20
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    @YanickSalzmann I did a chargeback with Condor before and was not banned. But in any case the primary task is to get out ASAP, not worry about lost payments.
    – JonathanReez
    May 25 at 20:12
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    @AugustineofHippo: I suppose one can try the chargeback, but as DavidSupportsMonica commented on the question, the contract specifically allows the airline to deny boarding if in their judgment the passenger is too ill to fly. Etihad will probably also say that they would have been happy to let her postpone the flight until she recovered, up until the point that "things escalated" which Etihad will characterize as "the passenger became unruly" or "disobeyed instructions of flight crew". By which token, to YanickSalzmann's comment, there's a good chance the whole party is already banned. May 26 at 12:32
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    After treatment like this, @YanickSalzmann, I doubt the family in question will be interested in flying Etihad again anyway, so even if they were banned, they likely wouldn't care.
    – FreeMan
    May 26 at 17:19
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Don't lose your cool when flying!

"Things escalated quickly and the airport police was called."

First, it's a bad idea to throw angry temper tantrums when flying generally. Airlines are a lot more security conscious than they used to be, and there's an understanding that an irate passenger can actually do serious damage - if not crash the plane, injure flight crew or other passengers. Remember, an airplane is a "Ship in a bottle" with no ability to get external help. So airlines are quite wise to refuse flight to highly reactive passengers.

Second, your friends' timing could not have been worse. There has been an epidemic of "Air Rage" incidents, and the airlines are on guard against it and fighting it with zero tolerance.

Third, any airline has the local police at their disposal, but your friend pulled this against the state's flag carrier*.

Etihad acted correctly. Here's why.

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And that's assuming Boston, not Houston or L.A. Also the route would swing south to avoid Ukraine, and north again to pick up advantageous wind and standard airways.

This is a long over-ocean flight, with no readily available diverts in the middle of the ocean. Apropos to your friends, this means two things. First, the wife already had a health episode on the connecting flight. If the wife has another one that might be more serious, there is no easy divert. The "golden hour" of response would be sacrificed diverting. Also, the high cost of diverting a 777 full of passengers. And second, the party had already demonstrated a tendency toward "air rage", another thing you don't want in a "ship in a bottle".

If you take "the view from 30,000 feet" as it were, the far more reasonable course all-around is to delay the passengers a few days in Abu Dhabi, where they are quite close to first-class medical care. Given that time, the medical situation will resolve itself (either recover, or culminate into something treatable for which a treatment plan can be made, and the safety of a long air-flight can be determined by specialists)... and meanwhile the angry person can calm down.

Get-There-"itis"

Why don't your friends see that view? Because of a disease we call "Get-There-Itis" - or more formally, "plan continuation bias". The unconscious, unreasonable tendency to continue with the original plan while disregarding changing conditions.

This infectious disease, which every flier has had, is one of the most deadly in all of aviation. It cripples the flier’s ability to think clearly, and pushes him/her to do things they wouldn’t have otherwise done.

In other words, an emotional "sense of immortality" - the belief that nothing bad will happen to me, or that I will magically "not care because I'm dead". That doesn't work so well for ones companions, or the company that agreed to participate. Etihad wanted no part of that, and declined.

This term actually comes from aviation, and Etihad is a top tier airline, so they know all about "get-there-itis". They recognized your friends' situation in that light.

They weren't wrong, sorry.



* By "state" I mean Abu Dhabi is one of several states inside the United Arab Emirates. Another is Dubai, which has competitor Emirates airlines.

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  • +1 No need to apologize to me. I agree with everything you said. I know and understand the reasons why Etihad denied them boarding. Yes, I would have behaved very differently. I would have stayed a day or two, maybe even sweet talk them and get a free hotel stay from them, and then continue traveling a few days later. Racism, sexism, shitty treatment as if a terrorist, no care or thought even for a small child, fear of exposure on social media, exacerbated by miscommunication and ignorance of the local law and culture was the problem. Please see my update for more details. Jun 3 at 8:04

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