“It sounds like criminal activity to me”

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By Christopher Elliott

And now, a little story about names, online travel agencies, airlines and the TSA.

Are you still with me?

Good. Because this could affect your next trip if you’re not careful.

Joanne Verdon just flew from Sacramento, Calif., to Philadelphia with her family, and learned “a very painful lesson,” she says.

She booked her tickets on United Airlines through Priceline.

Name mismatch woes

“We never noticed until this past week that our friend’s last name showed up as Verdon — the same as mine and my daughter’s,” she says. “When I realized the error, I immediately called United, accepting that I would probably have to pay a $150 fee to change the reservation.”

The rules are no secret: The name of your ticket must match the name on your ID exactly or you won’t be able to fly. That makes sense, because the government checks the names against its “no-fly” list before departure.

It’s also common knowledge that airlines don’t allow name changes on tickets, sometimes even small ones to correct a misspelling. A big one, like changing a last name, is asking a lot, and is rarely granted.

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Verdon continues,

United directed me back to Priceline, saying I needed to work with the travel agency. I called Priceline and was told United would have to authorize the name change, so I waited on hold with Priceline while they waited on hold with United.

Finally, Priceline got back on the line with me and said United would not authorize the name change. Per Priceline, United said all they could do was to put a note on the reservation but that would not guarantee that our friend would be able to board.

So neither Priceline nor United could or would help Verdon’s friend.

But wait! There’s more.

Priceline said our other option was to cancel the passenger’s first ticket and repurchase it. In this scenario, we would lose our payment for the first ticket and pay the current higher price for the new ticket and perhaps not have the same itinerary. This all sounded so bogus.

Finally, a United representative agreed to place a notation in the friend’s reservation.

Identity crisis at 30,000 feet

“I asked how it worked and if we would be able to board the airplane,” says Verdon. “He said it depended on the airport.” (Related: Can I get a refund for these airline credits on Expedia?)

Oh, that’s reassuring.

So they went to the airport to get a better answer. A United representative verified that a notation would work. Even the TSA said it would be fine. But that wasn’t enough. Their return flight was on US Airways, and a US Airways manager told them they’d be denied boarding. (Here’s what an airline owes you if it denies you boarding.)

When we got home, my daughter called Priceline again, spoke to three different agents and, when they wouldn’t budge, ended up canceling Jonathan’s first reservation, forfeiting the $392 fare, and paying an additional $755 to rebook him on the same flight with the same seat assignments!

And this is all legal? It sounds like criminal activity to me.

You know what? It does to me, too.

Here’s the problem I have: The TSA wasn’t protecting us from terrorists by turning him away – and it wouldn’t have done so, anyway. Also, US Airways and United weren’t protecting their revenues by denying this passenger a name change or preventing him from boarding. They were just being pigheaded.

Priceline could have done more than parrot the airline’s policies. It should have advocated for their customer, which after all, is what travel agents are supposed to do, right?

There has to be a better way to verify a passenger’s identity. For example, if the passenger’s date of birth and phone number and first name are the same, then it’s a pretty good bet he’s the same person, and no one is trying to transfer the name on the ticket, which would theoretically cost the airline revenue.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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