Does the TSA Secure Flight program mean more money for the airlines?

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By Christopher Elliott

Jesse Demastrie and his wife flew from Washington 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-in-law’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.”

The TSA’s strict secure flight rules

Airlines and airport screeners used to shrug off small discrepancies between the name on a ticket and a passenger’s driver’s license or passport. 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. Unfortunately, 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 bought a fully refundable ticket on another airline, just in case United told his wife that she couldn’t fly, because he was so worried.

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. Domestic airlines as a whole collected $1.7 billion, already surpassing the figure for all of 2009.

Addressing name errors

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.”

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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.”

Navigating airport security (TSA) and ticket errors

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 what Maya Wynn 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,” remembers Wynn, 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.

Simplifying ticket editing

Airlines could make it easier to edit tickets or make them transferrable, 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.

Company spokeswoman Heidi Castle says, “Passengers can modify the information in the passenger data field at any time. When they update this field, they transmit the content to the airline, which then 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. (Here’s how to get a refund on a non-refundable airline ticket.)

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. She is 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.” Lori 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?

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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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