Ridiculous or not? Your airline ticket isn’t transferrable

By | March 16th, 2011

Why can’t you change the name on your airline ticket?

Chayaron Hantalom wants to know. He’s a first-year law student at the University of Wisconsin, and last month, he booked tickets to fly from Madison to Los Angeles for himself and his girlfriend.

“Unfortunately, on the ticket back from Las Vegas to Madison, I put my girlfriend’s last name as my last name,” he says. Neither Orbitz, through which he bought the tickets, nor Delta Air Lines, the carrier they’re flying on, will fix the error.

Why not?

Airlines have long contended that security concerns prevent them from making name changes, but that doesn’t make any sense. All ticketed passengers are now screened through TSA’s “Secure Flight” program, and transfers would not affect the process at all. In fact, some airlines allow tickets to be transferred for a modest fee.

It’s probably more about money. If airline tickets could be transferred from one passenger to another, it would create a secondary market for tickets that would undermine the airline industry’s entire business model, which is to discount advance-purchase fares bought by tourists and raise the price of a tickets typically bought by business travelers.

Imagine if a business traveler could buy a name-transfer from a leisure traveler at a modest markup? Suddenly that $600 walk-up fare would be cut to $99. That would be great for the business traveler – but not so good for the airline.

Still, what’s to stop Delta from fixing Hantalom’s ticket? Delta, like other major airlines, considers each ticket change request on a case-by-case basis. A tweak of one or two characters is usually no problem; a notation can be made in the reservation.

Related story:   Who benefits the most from your airline affinity card? (That's not a trick question)

But altering a last name on a ticket without a marriage certificate? That’s a tall order. It’s a tall order, even with a marriage certificate for some airlines.

A concise and cordial appeal to a Delta manager might help. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Part of the problem with such rigid policies is that although it benefits the airline, because it can force a passenger to buy a whole new ticket, it punishes passengers by leaving them with a worthless voucher. A credit could be issued to the passenger, but it would be under the wrong name, meaning that the only way Hantalom’s girlfriend could use the voucher is if she married him and he changed his last name.

Consumer advocates are unhappy about these inflexible policies. They note that few if any industries place similar restrictions on their products, and question the legality of such practices. If you buy a ticket, they argue, it’s your property and you should be able to use it any way you want – including giving it to a friend or selling it to a third party.

Sure, allowing airline tickets to be fully transferrable would result in a loss of billions of dollars in revenues a year to the major airlines, by some informal estimates. But at the same time, does Hantalom’s predicament, and that of tens of thousands of other airline passengers who are holding worthless airline tickets, seem fair?

Should the airline just get to keep their money without providing the service they booked?

What do you think?

  • Barryw710

    Canadian airline Westjet allows name change for $50.00m !

  • Airlines are already largely unprofitable, but I digress.  Like any business, if they allowed for ticket transfers, they would just have to adjust their pricing algorithms.

    The only way the current system “saves” money is when they overbook flights, hoping some people drop out.  When nobody does, you have a problem.

  • MarcM

    It should not matter. If the airlines are concerned about revenue stream, then they could limit the number of tickets a single individual can purchase as fully transferable say 5. If a large family or group is traveling that exceeds the limit, then a phone call to group sales would be required – sound familiar?

    One a seat is purchased, it is ‘purchased’. If the purchaser changes who is going to use the seat, what does it really matter? Security is not or should not and cannot become the catch all phrase that excuses this policy. TSA now is the guardian for this, not the airlines.

    As stated, opening this policy to be ‘user friendly’ would indeed impact the dollars collected by the airlines but, these are ill gotten funds and, in a very real sense, are a method of double dipping or milking the traveler of even more money for the same trip – pay for luggage, pay for snacks, pay for in-flight movies….. pay for ticket name transfer, what’s the difference? Next we will be paying for use of the seat cushion or oxygen mask in the event of a crash….probably get a bill from the airline for aircraft repairs as well.

    What about the case of frequent flyer miles? No new revenue here, only using previously earned dollars to fund futures. With FF miles, if you need to make a change, not only do you have to make a new reservation, you have to ‘pay’ to put the miles back into your account! Now we are talking a ‘triple dip’ or what in legal circles is know as extortion or to simple folk as ‘highway robbery’ or just plain ‘thievery’.

    All for the sake of a name. No other modern source of transportation in our country or any other conducts itself in this manner. They simply would not get away with it. By the way, the airline industry did not use to do this either. There was a time when, just like with a ship, train or bus ticket, that you could purchase passage and, as required, use the same ticket for someone else. I personally few this way many times as late at the 1980’s.

    Times have changes but one thing never does – greed.

  • And when security scans the altered PDF, their screens will show the original name. Prepare for some explaining or handcuffs.

  • Which party are you referring to as being non-existent. The passenger who purchased the ticket (so they presumably exist) and the airline who sold the ticket, who undoubtedly exists?

  • Simple corrections like typos can be corrected. Changes within 24 hours of booking are relatively painless. Making wholesale changes to the first and last names after ticketing is what we’re discussing.

  • Blame the reason your husband couldn’t go for your experience, Not the airline where he purchased a non-refundable non-transferable.

  • The answer is buy a fully refundable ticket if you want your money back if you can’t fly. Rather than buying the non-refundable, non-transferable ticket with the restrictions we’re talking about. Of course that refundable ticket is more expensive.

  • This is the process now. Only one change per ticket. If its a last name change due to marriage, present a marriage certificate. Easy. If its a misspelling, present ID and pay the fee for the processing.

  • If you find you have an error within 24 hours of your purchase, it can be corrected. So don’t assume everything is the way you want it. Double check!

  • Back in the days when no one checked IDs before boarding, that can and did happen. I flew once on a friends ticket back before ID checking, but on the return the gate agent caught on and charged me to fly back home.

  • Family transfers are not possible because who is going to police if Mr. Smith is the cousin of Mr. Jones or not? And for the girlfriend example to apply, then don’t buy tickets for your soon to be ex-girlfriend.

  • I can make up a million names to buy tickets in bulk if I had the ability to resell them.

  • Sure, you can’t change the name on an unrestricted ticket. But you can get your money back and buy a new ticket with a new name. Problem solved.

    And no, it doesn’t matter who you buy the ticket from, online, airline direct or walking in to a travel agent. Same ticket, same price, same restrictions.

  • If companies want to be able to get a refund on the original ticket, and then buy at last minute a ticket for someone else, they should pay the higher no-restrictions fare instead. Problem solved since there is a way to get the flexibility they want. Of course it costs more!

  • They don’t check IDs at the rock concert. The do at the airport, so it is a matter of security helping to enforce ticket restrictions.

  • Mags23

    Not true. It’s only refundable for refundable tickets. However, no one actually buys refundable tickets because they always choose the cheapest fare, which unknowingly happens to be unrefundable.

  • ed

    Not really “solved.” Ticket prices may have changed since you booked the original ticket. If you want one agent of the company to go, and something comes up for him, then the company has to pay more to cancel, and rebook another agent. Obviously the airline can create whatever business model they want. The question is whether or not there are other adequate business models that better map their finite resources and service to customer needs. Just because it hasn’t been done, doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to pay for it.

  • ed

    Uhhh, the airline only checks your ID if you go to the counter to check bags or print the ticket. In most situations one prints tickets at the kiosk or at home. TSA checks ID matches boarding pass, but nothing is stopping her from a refundable ticket to please the TSA.

  • ed

    Security doesn’t scan boarding passes. Stop the FUD.

We want your feedback. Your opinion is important to us. Here's how you can share your thoughts:
  • Send us a letter to the editor. We'll publish your most thoughtful missives in our daily newsletter or in an upcoming post.
  • Leave a message on one of our social networks. We have an active Facebook page, a LinkedIn presence and a Twitter account. Every story on this site is posted on those channels. The conversation ranges from completely unmoderated (Twitter) to moderated (Facebook and LinkedIn).
  • Post a question to our help forums or ask our advocates for a hand through our assistance intake form. Please note that our help forum is not a place for debate. It's there primarily to assist readers with a consumer problem.
  • If you have a news tip or want to report an error or omission, you can email the site publisher directly. You may also contact the post's author directly. Contact information is in the author tagline.