I had to change my son’s name, but the airline won’t help me

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By Christopher Elliott

Lisa Coris changes the name on her son’s passport, but now Ethiopian Airlines won’t help, and wants to charge her $300. Is that too much?

Question

I’m a single mom, and I have an adopted child from Ethiopia who is almost 10 years old. When we left Ethiopia, I had to change his name so that my name was his middle name, in accordance with Ethiopian law.

I just renewed his passport and changed his name so that my name was no longer on it. But we are flying to Entebbe, Uganda, in December on Ethiopian Airlines, and his tickets still have my name as his middle name.

So now I have roundtrip tickets from San Francisco to Entebbe, but my son’s ticket still says “Lisa” while his passport doesn’t. I’ve asked Ethiopian Airlines to change the tickets, but Ethopian Airlines won’t help, and wants $300. Can you help me? — Lisa Coris, San Francisco, Calif.

Answer

Lisa, you’re a hero for adopting an Ethiopian orphan — and as a single mom, no less. I can understand why you would want to change your son’s name. Our customs and laws are different, and when you showed me all the paperwork, I noticed that he actually had two middle names, which was a little awkward.

By now, you probably know that the time to change your name is before you buy your tickets. Brides- and grooms-to-be, take note: Airlines love to collect a name-change fee or charge you for a brand-new ticket when you need to fix a ticket like this. The actual name change doesn’t cost your airline $300 in labor, but in the airline world, there’s so little that makes sense anymore.

Still, your circumstances were special. You were just trying to fix something that Ethiopian law had forced you to do. Unfortunately, that didn’t really resonate with your American value system. Adopting a child is also a noble thing, and it felt a little bit like you were being punished for simply trying to make the world a better place. (Related: After husband’s fall, will American offer a refund?)

Ethiopian Airlines is not difficult to reach. It lists its contacts by department on its own website. You also can find a full list of its executives on its site.

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I think a brief, polite appeal to the airline would have yielded a desired result. So why didn’t it? Based on what I see, you probably were a little too brief in your explanation of what went wrong. Most travelers offer too much detail. In your case, you could have written a more thorough explanation of what you needed. (Here’s how to get a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket.)

In the end, I think the airline probably would have let your son on the plane with his new passport. While some airlines pay close attention to the full name, the reservations systems can’t always fit the entire, full name on the ticket. So they may be abbreviated or overlooked entirely. I think you were correct to make sure the names matched, though. You don’t want to be left with a worthless ticket.

I contacted Ethiopian Airlines on your behalf. It waived your $300 change fee.

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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.

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