Airline ticket switcheroo


Q: I shopped around for months to find a fare I could afford to fly my dad and his wife out to see their grandson. I got a great fare on United Airlines through Expedia and booked a ticket online.

Since then, things have gone downhill. I inadvertently used my stepmother’s nickname rather than the name on her ID and have had nothing but problems trying to get it fixed. United told me that she most likely would not be able to board the flight unless the name on her ticket matched the name on her ID exactly.

I contacted Expedia about changing the name and they told me that they couldn’t because of United. I called United and they pointed the finger back at Expedia. I talked to a supervisor at Expedia who noted in the reservation that they have no problem changing the name, and they contacted United, who refused to give them permission.

I called United back and spoke with a supervisor who told me I would have to cancel the first ticket and buy a new one under the new name, after paying a $100 penalty. I agreed. After talking to the ticket agent, and going through the motions, including giving my credit card number, she came back on the line and told me that I would have to do it at the airport, which is a 45 minute drive from here.

At that point, I just wanted to cancel the ticket and buy another one. That turned out to be even harder. United would charge me a penalty and offer me a credit for a future flight, but not give me my money back.

I understand that this is an error on my part, but I don’t know what to do next. Any suggestions?

— Melissa McCuiston

A: You’re not the only traveler who has booked a ticket that can’t be used. I get a lot of requests for help from readers who bought a ticket with a wrong name, wrong date or even the wrong destination. They want me to fix it when the carrier refuses to help.

Normally, when the tickets are bought online, it’s an open-and-shut case. I contact the carrier. It offers to show me records, including screen-shots, where you made your purchase, and there’s not much that can be done about it. You booked the tickets. They’re yours.

But this case was little different. First of all, the name on your stepmother’s ticket was very close to the name on her ID. It was inconceivable to a reasonable observer that anyone but your stepmother would be using the ticket.

You also acknowledged your error – something so few passengers do that when it happens, you really pay attention.

I contacted United with your problem, and it agreed that these were unusual circumstance. I emphasize this because I know the airline doesn’t want to get into the habit of changing ticket names for any passenger who asks, and I’m not able to handle every such request as a troubleshooter, either.

United says tickets must match IDs for safety reasons, which is why it gave you the runaround when you wanted to change your stepmother’s name. “We would let her on the plane,” an airline spokeswoman told me. “But there are security issues.”

I’m not going to argue with United about safety. But I asked the Transportation Security Administration – the federal agency responsible for airport security – what would happen if I showed up at a checkpoint with an ID and ticket that didn’t match. It told me that I’d be subjected to additional screening at the airport checkpoint, but allowed through.

So why do airlines insist that the ID and ticket match? If it isn’t a security consideration, then what is it?

United changed your stepmother’s ticket at no charge to you, which I think is extraordinarily generous, given the carrier’s stated policy. But I hope the airline considers changing its rules to be more flexible. I’ve always favored transferable airline tickets, which may not make sense for an airline’s revenues, but would be a customer-friendly rule that would go a long way to improving air travel.