British Airways has apologised after it refused to allow a Ukrainian family, including an eight-year-old girl, to board a flight to the UK despite them having all the correct travel documents.
The family-of-three had fled their home in Kharkiv, which has endured some of the most intense Russian bombing, after waiting more than two weeks to be granted UK visas.
They travelled 800 miles to Warsaw airport in Poland, where they were due to fly to London under the UK government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme.
Vira Rybalchenko, 68, lost her passport in the evacuation but was assured by the British embassy that she would be allowed to travel because she had a paper copy of the document as well as a newly issued UK visa and a Ukrainian identity card.
The family passed through airport security without a problem but minutes before they were due to board their flight Rybalchenko was wrongly told by BA staff that she could not leave without her original passport.
BA admitted this was a mistake and issued an apology to the family after being contacted by the Guardian. It said: “We’re very sorry for the genuine error made by our team when trying to follow Home Office guidance and we’ve put measures in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again. We’re making contact with the family to apologise and will be providing a full refund of their tickets.”
Rybalchenko’s daughter, Hanna Zakhovaieva, said: “This was a horrible experience and my mum was absolutely shocked. I couldn’t leave my mum in Poland because she doesn’t understand the language and doesn’t know anyone or have anywhere to stay.”
Zakhovaieva, 37, said her eight-year-old daughter, Sofiia, was “very traumatised” by the war and speaks to her father, Konstantin, every day in Kharkiv to make sure “he is still alive”.
The family had arrived at the airport at 6am with all of their belongings before the 8.25am flight to London Heathrow. Zakhovaieva, an accountant, said they were left “without explanation or apology” by BA staff after being wrongly refused permission to board.
They eventually boarded an 8pm flight to London on LOT Polish Airlines after an employee at the Hungarian airline Wizz Air created a temporary travel document for Rybalchenko.
Zakhovaieva said she saw another family being turned away by BA staff and that it may have happened to many more. “When we spoke to the visa centre at the airport they told us that the majority of the families will be in the same situation [regarding incomplete documents] and they were shocked that BA didn’t allow us to board even though we had a visa,” she said. “They said this is a massive issue that a lot of families will face.”
BA declined to say how many other Ukrainian passengers had been wrongly turned away.
Zakhovaieva, her daughter and mother are now living with their host family in Surrey, Kate Larmer and Charlie Boffin, who helped set up the group Farnham Homes for Ukraine to match strangers in the UK with Ukrainians fleeing the war.
Tatyana Moskalenko, a Ukrainian living in Britain who helps run the group, said airlines should know that refugees were permitted to board flights as long as they had a valid visa. She said: “We’re currently helping 87 families [get to the UK] and every one of these families is missing documents, either because it was lost in the evacuation or the passport has expired. This is government guidance that they don’t need to have a valid passport to travel because they are refugees – it is sufficient if they have a visa.”
BA has faced weeks of turmoil with scores of flight cancellations caused by IT failures and staff shortages.