The Navigator: Does Flight mean more money for the airlines?

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.”

Small discrepancies between the name on a ticket and a passenger’s driver’s license or passport used to be shrugged off by airlines and airport screeners. 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, but 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 was so worried that he bought a fully refundable ticket on another airline, just in case United told his wife that she couldn’t fly.

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

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.”

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.”

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.

Airlines could make it easier to edit tickets 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.

The information in the passenger data field “can be modified at any time,” says company spokeswoman Heidi Castle. “When this field is updated, the content is transmitted to the airline, which in turn 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.

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, 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.” She 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?

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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