Theoretically, this cannot happen.
But it did.
Karen Smith, from Milford, USA was on vacation with her family in the Dominican Republic.
On their way home, she printed out her first-class boarding pass and had it scanned by both security and US Airways agents at the Punta Cana boarding gate.
Then something went wrong. She was pulled out of the line just as she and her family were about to get on the plane. They took her boarding pass. They said they needed to give her a "flight coupon" back at the counter.
They made her stand at the counter so long that the flight took off with her husband and three children aboard and all their luggage. She had no possessions except her purse. They did not rebook her on another airline and said they had nothing available on US Airways except a flight that would get her home in two days. The counter closed.
As night fell, they left her in the lobby. She had to go on her own to a hotel, then pay nearly US$1400 (NZ$1614) the next day to get home on Delta Air Lines.
At no time was she held by security, immigration or customs. She was not on a no-fly list. Her passport was never taken. She was not unruly. And "her" seat on the plane was left empty.
What in the world could have happened?
Something that supposedly in this day and age absolutely cannot.
Her US Airways return ticket was evaporated by Delta, but the error was invisible to the US Airways reservations systems.
If it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone.
Zombie airline ticket
For weeks afterward, Smith contacted US Airways customer service trying to get answers and get her money back for costs and trauma, even filing a complaint with the US Department of Transportation. I talked to US Airways on her behalf three times. After several rounds of disbelief, denials, delays and internal investigations, the story became clear. Sort of.
It turns out that Smith had booked the family's US$10,000 trip on Expedia, with the family flying on Delta to Punta Cana and flying US Airways back to Detroit. No problem with that.
However, the day the family left Detroit, Delta had to make an adjustment to Smith's ticket at the gate, but - and this is the part that is not supposed to be possible - somehow voided out the entire e-ticket including the US Airways return portion - even though the change did not show up in the US Airways reservations system and the passenger had no way of knowing about the problem.
Thus, upon her return from Punta Cana, Smith was able to print out her US Airways first class boarding pass, get it scanned, and nearly board the plane when US Airways agents, noticing for the first time the lack of a valid underlying ticket, pulled her from the line.
Then they left an American citizen standing all alone in the closing terminal, her family flown away, her cell phone dying and no way to get home.
Prying a refund
There are some lessons from this story. Always carry your e-ticket number (printed on your reservation). If your ticket involves multiple airlines, be wary of any changes made to it by the first carrier.
Get travel insurance, which can reimburse you for your costs. And if you are in an emergency in a foreign country, contact the your country's embassy - specifically their citizen services division, which was established to help. This, Smith did not do.
But she did nothing wrong. Neither did Expedia. There is nothing unusual about booking a ticket that includes legs on two different airlines.
US Airways has acknowledged poor customer service by their Punta Cana agents, but it has denied causing the cancelled ticket and thus says it owes her nothing, a US Airways spokesman told me.
Delta, after a query from the US Department of Transportation, finally refunded the US$1,385.30 Smith had to pay for a new airline ticket home. Russell Cason, Delta's manager of corporate communications, tells me Delta also will pay her US$160 hotel cost.
"As soon as we were made aware of the problem, we researched the situation, issued her an apology and fully refunded her return ticket," he said. "We are working with Ms. Smith to process a refund for her additional hotel costs in Punta Cana."
Nobody has given Smith anything for scaring the heck out of her and her family, and abandoning her in a foreign country.
I have never heard of an intra-airline error like this happening in the computer age. Neither, obviously, had the airlines. Neither had the government. Hopefully, it will never happen again. But it could.
"It was a miserable experience for our family," Smith says, "and I think Delta and US Airways got off easy."
Detroit Free Press/MCT