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Sean P. Murphy | The Fine Print

Trip to Rio tripped up by Delta’s bad info

Tom Donahue wound up in detention in Rio de Janeiro after Delta Air Lines gave him bad information about visa requirements. He is pictured in his home in Lower Mills.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Tom Donahue readily admits he failed to do his homework before showing up at Logan Airport last month to begin a vacation in Brazil.

He was stunned to learn from the agent at the Delta counter that he needed a visa, in addition to his passport, for his trip to Rio de Janeiro. He wouldn’t be allowed to board the plane that day, he was told, but if he went online and got an “e-visa,” Delta would put him on a flight the next day.

Donahue did just as he was instructed, printing out what he — and apparently Delta — believed was a legitimate visa, and returned to the airport the next day. And he took off for Rio.


But when he landed in sunny, 80-degree weather on Feb. 17, he was greeted by two grim-faced uniformed officers who escorted him into a small, windowless room where he would remain for 14 hours.

“You’re not legal to be in Brazil,” one of the officers shouted at Donahue in English. “Who let you in?”

“Delta,” Donahue said, his heart in his throat.

Donahue pulled out a printed copy of an e-mail he had received the day before, acknowledging his completed application for an electronic visa and began repeating the assurance several Delta representatives in Boston had given him.

“Everything is in the system,” Donahue insisted. “It’s electronically filed.”

But it wasn’t. All Donahue had done was apply for a visa electronically; that’s all the e-mail acknowledged.

Donahue had neither an electronic nor a paper visa. Yet Delta had blithely allowed him to travel in obvious violation of a new program the Brazilian government set up to allow electronic visas.

“I was basically under arrest,” Donahue, 61, told me last week. “Alone, unable to speak the language, and completely cut off from home — I was scared to death.”


Tom Donahue wound up in detention in Rio de Janeiro after Delta Air Lines gave him bad information about visa requirements. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

As he assessed the rapidly deteriorating situation, Donahue recalled the words of a Brazilian friend who had come to the airport to pick him up. Donahue had spoken to him only a moment on the phone, just long enough to blurt out that he was being taken into custody.

“Stay calm,” said his friend. “Don’t get upset with them.”

Feeling helpless and confused, Donahue resolved to do as his friend advised, sitting quietly in an uncomfortable chair for hours, barely looking up when officers with submachine guns arrived to escort three fellow detainees out of the room.

How had it happened?

Donahue had booked his ticket on Delta in late December. It would have been nice, he later told me, if Delta had coded its website so a pop-up window appeared to tell travelers to Brazil that a visa was needed. (When I later told a Delta representative of Donahue’s suggestion, she said the airline is considering it.)

Donahue, a longtime nurse who oversees emergency medical services at two Greater Boston facilities, took the trip just days after the death and burial of his 90-year-old mother. He had arrived at Logan looking forward to long hours lolling on Rio’s legendary beaches.

The first sign of trouble came at the airline kiosk, where he was unable to print a boarding pass after scanning in his passport.

“You need a visa,” a Delta representative told him.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me that?” he asked.


“Not our responsibility,” the rep said. Which is true: The onus is on the travelers. But it certainly gums things up for an airline when travelers are caught unawares. And no country wants the hassle of intercepting the likes of Donahue for deportation.

Actually, you have to look long and hard to find any mention of a visa on Delta’s website. Here’s what it says: “A travel visa is required to enter many countries. To see if one is required for your upcoming trip, visit the US State Department travel website.”

I typed Brazil into the look-up box on the State Department website and clicked “go” several times last week, but every time the Web page failed to load. Oh well. You can get the information you need by typing “Brazil” and “visa” into Google.

A visa is permission, in writing and in advance, from a host country allowing you in. Donahue’s first venture overseas was last year, when he hopscotched from Dublin to London to Paris — no visa required. Visa, as far as Donahue was concerned, was a credit card company.

Almost 180 countries welcome Americans without a visa, only a passport. Some of the countries that do require visas are now experimenting with e-visas. Instead of dealing with a host country’s embassy or consulate office, you fill out an application online, upload photos of you and your passport, and pay a fee of about $50. Your visa should arrive by e-mail as a downloadable attachment. You print it and present it at customs to gain entry.


When Donahue arrived at Logan on Feb. 15, the Brazilian government was still in its first month of offering e-visas. Apparently, key details of the new program had eluded more than a few Delta employees. The Brazilian government makes it clear it takes at least four days, and usually longer, to process an e-visa. But the Delta representatives assured Donahue he could get one in 24 hours.

It bothered him that he didn’t get an official-looking visa. But he put his apprehension aside, and, when he returned to Logan as planned, presto, his boarding pass printed like a charm.

“I don’t need some kind of document I can carry in my hand?” Donahue asked Delta.

“It’s all online,” came the reply. “You’ll be fine.”

In Atlanta, Donahue got a new boarding pass for the connecting flight to Rio — more reassurance everything was in order. The boarding pass was stamped, in big, black letters: “DOCS-OK.”

Donahue’s detention in Rio ended abruptly when officers marched him to the door of a Delta plane heading back to the United States. The next day, he demanded a refund of his $1,620 airfare. He never heard back from Delta, one of the world’s largest airlines.

I called Delta and shared details of Donahue’s nightmare in Rio. A spokeswoman almost immediately began apologizing. Why did it happen? A breakdown, she said. One of those things. Delta was quick to offer a refund

But what about the $800 Donahue lost on the Airbnb accommodations he didn’t get to use in Rio? Silence.


Well, let me say this to Delta: Not only do you owe Donahue his airfare and his lost $800, I think you also owe him a free round-trip ticket to Rio. This time, let’s hope he enjoys enough of Brazil’s fine cuisine to get rid of the lingering bad taste of stale corn bread and mystery meat served to him by his captors.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.