Should airline tickets be transferrable?

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By Christopher Elliott

As Ralph Santopietro sees it, Delta Air Lines had him over a barrel when he tried to change the dates on a flight from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to Hartford, Conn.

A ticket agent in Myrtle Beach offered to rebook Santopietro, a retired high school teacher, on the new itinerary. But his $238 ticket credit would be all but consumed by a $200 change fee. He would then have to pay a $538 fare difference.

How about transferring the ticket to his cousin, who would take the flight as originally planned? Nope, said the agent, citing security restrictions on ticket name changes.

“I didn’t like those choices,” he says.

The call for passenger-friendly changes

In an airline industry now dominated by a few oversized carriers, neither do many of his fellow passengers. Domestic airlines collected a record $2.5 billion in ticket change fees in 2012, and Delta led the flock with $778 million, an increase of $11 million from the previous year. Although airlines have valid business reasons for their ticket restrictions, consumer advocates say they are too rigid and avaricious.

To passengers, the name-change policy in particular seems like a way for airlines to pocket more of their money. Alan Gore, a photographer from Sedona, Ariz., says he feels cornered when he considers his flight options. A fully refundable ticket costs three to four times more than a restricted ticket. And even when passengers have a valid reason to cancel a trip, airlines are unmoved.

“When life happens and people get sick before a flight, they now have no choice but to take it and give the flu to every other passenger,” he says.

He says it’s time for the airline industry to let passengers change the name on a ticket.

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Policy and passenger security

Airlines don’t allow name changes for two reasons, according to Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an industry trade group. The first is airline policy. An airline needs to know who the customer is so it can “provide quality service,” she says. It also relies on tickets being non-changeable in order to manage its seat inventory.

“Since air transportation is a service that perishes when the aircraft door is closed, it is in both the passengers’ and airline’s interest to closely match the number of passengers to seats available, from both a customer service and revenue management perspective,” Day says.

The second reason is security, or ensuring that the ticketed passenger is the same person going through the TSA checkpoint and getting screened.

Those assertions are more or less true. Warren Lieberman, an airline pricing expert and president at Veritec Solutions, says the more true part involves an airline’s ability to make money. If name changes were allowed, then passengers could resell their tickets anytime, subverting an airline’s ability to raise ticket prices as the flight becomes full.

“That would lead to declines in revenue,” he says.

A logical and long-lost courtesy

The less true part is security. The Transportation Security Administration uses a system called Secure Flight to screen airline passengers, but it’s capable of handling checks instantly, according to the agency. In other words, if airlines relaxed their rules on name changes, the TSA would have no trouble accommodating them.

“There is no reason why a consumer should not be able to easily transfer her ticket to another person in the event that she cannot travel,” says Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League.

Permitting a name change makes sense to passengers, and not just because an airline won’t incur any security risks or additional expenses. It’s also something that as recently as a few decades ago was common, even among legacy carriers. Veteran air travelers recall a time when tickets could be purchased in the classified section of their newspaper. Somehow, airlines managed to make money even then. (Here’s how to get a refund on a non-refundable airline ticket.)

Given the fact that competition and choice are gradually being drained from our airline network, shouldn’t airlines be compelled to return one of yesteryear’s common courtesies — the ability to let someone else use a passenger’s ticket?

Until then, it seems even airline employees understand that passengers don’t have any real options. One of them happened to be the kindly ticket agent in Myrtle Beach, who saw the absurdity of Santopietro’s situation. She finally beckoned him to come closer to her station.

“She looked down and sheepishly whispered that perhaps I could try another airline,” he says. He found a $187 ticket on US Airways.

Should airline tickets be transferrable?

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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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