Show me your credit card

by Christopher Elliott on March 7, 2003

Q: I am a United Airlines elite-level frequent flier, and have been for eight of the past 11 years. My travel is arranged through a company agent based in Cincinnati. I work in Los Angeles. The trips are paid on a corporate credit card in my employer’s name and issued electronically.

On a recent flight to Seattle the ticket agent asked for the credit card used to purchase the ticket. I explained that the card is in Cincinnati. The agent explained that since I’m flying on an electronic ticket that’s purchased by a credit card, the airline is required to ask for the credit card. “Otherwise we cannot permit you to board the aircraft,” she said.

Proving I worked for the company, showing my identification and years of elite status were no good. Finally, after calling my travel agent and speaking with a supervisor, I was permitted to board. But later calls to United never provided a complete and satisfactory explanation of the rule. Can you help me get to the bottom of this?

– Steve Treisman

A: I’ll try. This is actually a common problem. I’ve spent a few nervous moments at the ticket counter myself, fumbling to produce the right credit card.

But where’s the rule on this? Like other airlines, United has a set of what I like to call “stealth” policies that aren’t really spelled out anywhere. United’s Web site made no mention of its show-me-the-credit-card requirement. And if it did, I couldn’t find it.

So I turned United spokesman Jeff Green. He told me that a customer “must show the credit card used to purchase the ticket if they are asked.” You’ll also need the same card to take advantage of its express check-in kiosks, called Easy Check, he said.

“Not only is this done as a measure to prevent fraudulent use of a credit card, but as an added security measure as well,” he told me.

I’m not going to argue with anyone about security, not in this day and age. And certainly, identity theft is a big concern. So good for United for protecting us from all that.

Green suggested that you contact the airline’s customer relations department for details on the policy. And you did. An agent told you that the rule is – or “at least is supposed to be” – that if you buy an electronic ticket on the Web or by phone, the agent or kiosk is supposed to ask for the credit card used to pay for the ticket.

But if you’re an elite-level frequent flier, you’re exempt from the rule.

The first agent who threatened to deny you boarding wasn’t familiar with the exception, and almost made you miss your flight. The United spokesman was correct, but should have explained the exceptions. I have to assume that the customer-service agent was correct. But based on the answer (“at least is supposed to be”) I have to wonder.

Where are these rules written down? Why can’t I locate a copy of the policy anywhere? I can’t find them, and apparently, neither can some of United’s own employees.

The policy doesn’t really make much sense, if you think about it. Is an elite-level frequent flier any less likely to use a stolen credit card to book a flight than a garden-variety traveler? Unless United keeps a passenger’s criminal record in their Mileage Plus database, I don’t see how they could substantiate such a claim.

United should consider finding a better way to protect us from identity theft and security threats than a vague policy that protects the airline’s preferred customer while punishing those flying on discounted tickets.

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