By any other name

Why don’t air­lines ease trav­el­ers’ wor­ries about match­ing names on tick­ets and IDs?

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - Christo­pher El­liott

Jesse De­mas­trie and his wife flew fromWash­ing­ton to Las Ve­gas with­out in­ci­dent the day af­ter Christ­mas. TSA agents waved them through the screen­ing area, and United Air­lines al­lowed the cou­ple to board the air­craft.

But De­mas­trie had been wor­ried that they might be turned away from their flight. When his fa­ther booked their tick­ets through Trav­e­loc­ity as a gift, he typed his daugh­ter-in­law’s name as Dianne El­iz­a­beth De­mas­trie in­stead of her le­gal name, Dianne Tharp De­mas­trie.

“I called both Trav­e­loc­ity and United to see if we could get the ticket changed,” said De­mas­trie, a me­dia buyer from Washington. “But the best they said they could do was to make a note on the ac­count of the name change.”

Small dis­crep­an­cies be­tween the name on a ticket and a pas­sen­ger’s driver’s li­cense or pass­port used to be shrugged off by air­lines and air­port screen­ers. But un­der the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Se­cure Flight pro­gram, the name on a ticket and on an ID must match ex­actly. If they don’t, you could be de­layed or pre­vented from fly­ing. It turns out that there’s some wig­gle room for er­rors, though, which isn’t al­ways dis­closed to air trav­el­ers. More on that in a minute.

Air­lines some­times of­fer to make an elec­tronic no­ta­tion on an air­line reser­va­tion that con­tains a mi­nor er­ror, but they can’t guar­an­tee that it will work. The only way to be 100 per­cent sure, they’ll fre­quently say, is to buy a new ticket with the cor­rect name. In some cases, they’ll of­fer to change the name for a fee. De­mas­trie was so wor­ried that he bought a fully re­fund­able ticket on an­other air­line, just in case United told his wife that she couldn’t fly.

No ques­tion, Se­cure Flight is an op­por­tu­nity for air­lines to make even more money. The air­line in­dus­try just wrapped up its most profitable year in a decade, in large part by charg­ing so-called “an­cil­lary” fees, such as change fees. United Air­lines col­lected $243 mil­lion in can­cel­la­tion and change fees dur­ing the first three quar­ters of 2010, and do­mes­tic air­lines as a whole col­lected $1.7 bil­lion, al­ready sur­pass­ing the fig­ure for all of 2009.

Are air­lines ex­ploit­ing the TSA’s stricter name-match­ing re­quire­ments to squeeze even more money out of us?

No, says the in­dus­try. Delta Air Lines, which col­lected the most can­cel­la­tion and change fees ($533 mil­lion in the first nine months of 2010), is promis­ing to work with cus­tomers to fix name er­rors in­stead of stick­ing them with a change fee or telling them to buy a new ticket. “It’s han­dled on a case-by-case ba­sis,” says air­line spokes­woman Su­san El­liott. “It de­pends on how sig­nif­i­cant the change is that they’re re­quest­ing.”

Typ­i­cally, air­lines will cor­rect small er­rors, such as chang­ing a let­ter or two, with­out any ques­tions or sur­charges. Be­yond that, it’s of­ten up to the reser­va­tions agent or your travel agent to de­cide how to solve the prob­lem. And that’s where things get a lit­tle murky.

“If a Trav­e­loc­ity cus­tomer catches a mis­take in their name within 24 hours of book­ing, we will can­cel their ticket and reis­sue” it, says Trav­e­loc­ity spokesman Joel Frey. “Be­yond that 24-hour win­dow, it re­ally comes down to the air­line’s flex­i­bil­ity on a case-by-case ba­sis.”

Frey says that travel agen­cies would wel­come new poli­cies that might al­low “rea­son­able” ex­cep­tions and that Trav­e­loc­ity is “en­cour­ag­ing our air­line part­ners to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­i­ties.”

Af­ter the one-day win­dow closes, the next best op­tion is a no­ta­tion in your reser­va­tion, which is no as­sur­ance that you’ll be able to board. Pas­sen­gers who want a sure thing of­ten find them­selves think­ing that they have only one choice: to buy a new ticket.

That’s whatMayaWynn was afraid she’d have to do when she dis­cov­ered a prob­lem with the name on her hus­band’s air­line ticket at Thanks­giv­ing. She’d added the suf­fix “Jr.” to his name when she booked her flights on Ya­hoo! Travel, but it ren­dered as “Fred­er­ickJr” on the ticket, which didn’t match her hus­band’s ID. She didn’t no­tice the prob­lem un­til she got to the air­port.

“We asked the check-in peo­ple if they could cor­rect it,” re­mem­ber­sWynn, a mar­ket­ing man­ager from Falls Church. “We asked if we’d be able to get through se­cu­rity with it wrong. They said, ‘Maybe.’ ”

Af­ter some back-and-forth with the gate agent, Wynn de­cided to chance it with the TSA.

“ The TSA guy didn’t even look twice,” she says. “I imag­ine he had other wor­ries.”

In fact, Wynn was home free by then. When she ar­rived at the screen­ing area, her hus­band’s in­cor­rect name had al­ready been checked against a list of po­ten­tial se­cu­rity threats and had passed. Once pas­sen­gers re­ceive their board­ing passes, the Se­cure Flight process is al­ready com­plete, ac­cord­ing to the TSA.

Air­lines could make it eas­ier to edit tick­ets if they wanted to.

On Sabre, one of the reser­va­tions sys­tems used by travel agents, the Se­cure Flight pas­sen­ger data field is sep­a­rate from the pas­sen­ger name field, and the TSA doesn’t re­quire the two to match.

The in­for­ma­tion in the pas­sen­ger data field “can be mod­i­fied at any time,” says com­pany spokes­woman Heidi Cas­tle. “When this field is up­dated, the con­tent is trans­mit­ted to the air­line, which in turn passes this in­for­ma­tion on to the TSA for board­ing pass ap­proval.”

In other words, pas­sen­gers wouldn’t need to worry about chang­ing the names on their tick­ets; they would only need to en­sure that the field with the Se­cure Flight pas­sen­ger data had been changed. That seems like a rea­son­able com­pro­mise, al­low­ing the TSA to pre-screen the pas­sen­ger and giv­ing air trav­el­ers the peace of mind that they’ll be al­lowed to board.

Why don’t air­lines just let trav­el­ers know that the name on their ticket doesn’t need to match the name on their ID, only the name on the field that’s trans­mit­ted to TSA? Clar­i­fy­ing the pol­icy would come as a re­lief to Lori Hoep­ner, a uni­ver­sity re­searcher from New York who has tick­ets to fly from New York to New Or­leans with her hus­band and 5-year-old son for Pres­i­dent’s Day week­end. She ac­ci­den­tally typed her hus­band’s name, Jede­diah, in as “Jeb.” She called her air­line to see whether it could edit the name on his ticket.

“ The woman I spoke with made it sound like no big deal,” she says. “She said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ ”

But if there’s noth­ing to worry about, then why not put some­thing in writ­ing? El­liott is Na­tional Geo­graphic Trav­eler mag­a­zine’s reader ad­vo­cate. E-mail him at

cel­liott@ngs.org.

LUCI GU­TIER­REZ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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