By Victoria Bryan and Alexander Cornwell
BERLIN/DUBAI (Reuters) - Airlines reacted angrily on Monday to an abrupt change in U.S. immigration policy, saying they were struggling to enforce unclear rules, faced unexpected additional costs and were worried they could be fined if they get it wrong.
New U.S. President Donald Trump announced over the weekend a four-month hold on allowing refugees into the United States and temporarily barred travelers from Syria and six other Muslim-majority countries, provoking a worldwide backlash and protests at U.S. airports.
Global airlines association IATA, representing 265 airlines, said on Monday the order was issued without prior coordination or warning, causing confusion among travelers and its own members, who are now at the forefront of implementing the rules.
"It also placed additional burdens on airlines to comply with unclear requirements, to bear implementation costs and to face potential penalties for non-compliance," it said in a statement, calling for more clarity and more notice in future.
One Gulf airline executive who declined to be named complained U.S. customs and border protection officials in the Gulf started notifying airlines and airports at the same time as the media reports came out. Budget carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle said it found out via media reports.
Other airlines were informed about the new rules in conference calls with U.S. authorities.
"It's distressing that some of our passengers have to face these sudden changes," Dutch airline KLM said on Monday after it stopped seven passengers from traveling on Saturday.
Trump took to Twitter on Monday to defend the abrupt order. "If the ban were announced with a one week notice, the 'bad' would rush into our country during that week," he wrote.
STRUGGLING TO ADAPT
Should passengers be refused entry to a country, it is generally the responsibility of an airline to provide assistance to the passengers and return them to their country of origin.
Airlines have to abide by immigration rules and usually check passengers have the requisite visa or permission to travel during check-in or before boarding.
However, confusion over the new rules has left many airlines struggling to adapt.
For example, Britain's foreign office said it had been informed by the U.S. government that travel restrictions did not apply to people traveling from the United Kingdom regardless of their nationality or place of birth.
But on Monday morning, the website of the U.S. embassy in Britain said visa issuance had been suspended to nationals and dual nationals of the seven countries. The page was removed later on Monday and the foreign office repeated the restrictions did not apply to UK passport holders.
The Gulf airline executive said U.S. officials had verbally told the airline that passengers from the banned list of countries could board flights if they had certain visas but that no official or public statement supported that guidance.
Airlines and airports in Dubai, Germany, France and Amsterdam each said on Monday a small number of passengers had been prevented from boarding flights to the United States as a result of the new rules.
A spokesman for Germany's Lufthansa said an aid organization had not been allowed to bring refugees to the United States via Frankfurt.
Airlines also complained the new rules were complicating their staffing arrangements.
Dubai-based Emirates [EMIRA.UL] and Lufthansa said they had changed crew rosters because of the travel ban.
Abu-Dhabi airline Etihad said it had taken steps to ensure its flights could depart.
"I don't think it was handled very well," another senior Gulf airline executive said, adding the airline was seeking U.S. approval for flight crew from the seven banned countries to be allowed to work on U.S. services, despite an IATA memo saying the ban applied to flight attendants and pilots.
German business travel association VDR said the new U.S. policy was damaging for business and harmed the image of the United States abroad.
"As a matter of principle we work for the free movement of trade and people across borders," IATA added.
(Additional reporting by Peter Maushagen in Frankfurt, Joachim Dageborg in Oslo, Cyril Altemeyer in Paris and Alistair Smout in London; Editing by Mark Potter)