What’s in a name? How to avoid being denied boarding

by Janice Hough on May 13, 2009

Plenty of things can go wrong with any airline trip. One of the easiest problems to avoid is a simple thing in making reservations: Give the airline or travel agent your exact name as on your driver’s license or passport.

I am sure most readers are savvy enough fliers that name problems don’t happen to them. But this post might be useful for infrequent flier friends and relatives.

As an agent, it’s easy when I get an email from a Becky or Bill. I simply ask, is it Rebecca or William? Though sometimes it can be an exotic or foreign variation. Rebekkah or Guillermo, for example.

And yes, sometimes you might get lucky — but not always. A client who had flown “for 20 years” as Penny, when her real name was Penelope, was nearly denied boarding last year. You can’t count on the agent recognizing the diminutive, or even if they recognize it, accepting the ticket.

And it can get more complicated. I had a request this week from a Mike. I asked it was Michael on his license, he said, yeah, well, actually, it’s Matthew Michael. Does that matter?

Only if you want to get on the plane.

In most of these cases, the traveler says “But I always go by that name.” And some even have business cards with a nickname.

Then there are the hyphenated last names, and those who use one name professionally and another name legally. Any combination of the above is fine, but the legal name MUST match the ticket. Even if the traveler somehow signed up for a frequent flier account under a slightly different name.

If a name has changed, through marriage or divorce, the airline doesn’t care. Even if you “hardly think of the jerk anymore,” as one client told me. When a passport and driver’s license have different names, use the same that matches the identification you are using.

For example, for a domestic trip where a drivers license has your married name, travel under your married name, if your passport still shows a maiden name, book international travel under that name. And try to get them synchronized. Otherwise it will be a problem with accruing frequent flier miles as well as a point of possible confusion.

For hyphenated last names, however, airline systems do not recognize hyphens, so they run it together. But it does matter, if say a drivers license says, for example, “Susan Armstrong-Jones, or Susan Armstrong Jones, because without a hyphen a picky security agent will say that the ticket should read Susan Jones with Armstrong as a middle name, and with a hyphen the ticket should read Susan ArmstrongJones.

In our office, we catch this sort of thing all the time. And often people are shocked that it matters. On good days we catch it before the ticket is issued. (But sometimes, especially when someone is making a third party reservation, mistakes happen because the travel arranger has the wrong information.)

We do wonder, however, how often people who book online discover the problem only when they get to the airport. If you have a story about a name incident would love to hear about it in comments.

And by the way, this name game is about to get a lot more complicated. Tomorrow’s post will be on the new TSA name rules which will start to roll out later this week.

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  • Ed F

    I am tempting fate by commenting here, but I use my middle name. Can’t stand my first name, never use it, and awlays book my airlines tickets using my middle and last names. Never had a problem. Either domestic or international, either on US-based airlines or foreign ones. Now that I’ve said all that, I’ll let you know when I have my first problem (which is likely soon, I suppose.)

    Oh, and I travelled as recently as 2 weeks ago from the UK to Kenya and a month ago from the UK to the US and back. Both by my middle and last names.

  • http://cestbeth.com/ Beth

    Some of the airline website booking engines do not yet allow you to enter in your full name. For example, one’s license and passport may read Jane Ann Doe, but many airlines only allow for Jane Doe or Jane A. Doe.

  • Jo Anne VG

    I have this problem constantly as I have a hyphenated last name. Some sites do not allow for a hyphen while others do not allow for the number of letters cutting off the spelling of my last name. I’ve gone round and round w/the airlines and have been told (by airline agents themselves) that their systems are ancient. I always remark that if the passport and license can get it correct, why can’t the airlines. The agents act like it’s not their concern.
    I now say, “please, IRS knows me by this name and it needs to be the same so I can use it as a business expense.” Would you believe they understand that comment – even though I do NOT use it for a business expense?
    Training and new computer programs need to be in order everywhere if it will ever work the correct way.

  • http://www.Tahiti3.com Paula

    Ed – you are the most fortunate of people! Well before 9/11, first names were required for ticketing. It saved the airlines a ton of money on someone using
    another’s nonrefundable ticket with the same first initial last name.

    For several years, Delta has required me to use first name. They were stuck on the first name issue even though I give them more info with first initial middle name last – which matches my license and passport.

    The new TSA rules mean that I’m going to use my (ecch) full name from now on
    and strongly suggest to clients they work on getting both IDs the same.

    One client of mine has an unusual spelling of her first name and uses her
    stepfather’s last name. When she got her birth certificate she discovered
    her name was legally recorded with a 3rd spelling and her birth father’s.
    Let’s just say that it was a real challenge proving who she was for a passport.

    ~Paula is my middle name~

  • Natalie

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention my favorite offense in this category – honeymooning brides. When I was planning my wedding, I could not believe the number of other brides I came in contact with who were bent on making their plane reservations for their honeymoon in their new married names. Never mind the fact that there’s no way one can change their name on their government issued-ID in time for a flight the morning after the wedding.

    In my state, you have to go to the Social Security Administration and then the DMV to get your name changed. You must have a marriage certificate to do so and in CA at least, you don’t get it until the county clerk sends it to you at least a couple weeks after the wedding.

    I pleaded with some of these ladies for their sake and the sake of their fellow passengers, to make the reservations with the name that was on the ID. The fact that they a) would cause a backup in the check in line or b) might not get on the plane didn’t phase them. They really wanted to travel as Mrs. Hislastname. This was well after 9/11.

  • Ivon

    If i get a plane ticket under the name ivon rodriguez (example name) and on my mexican passport ( the green ones) my name reads ivon rodriguez (fathers last name) and Guezman (mothers last name) and my resident card says ivon rodriguez (guezman is dropped since its custom to use only the fathers name in america) will i be allowed to board.

  • sheryl

    So, I have been to Delta, Southwest, Jet Blue, and United. You CANNOT enter your middle name on the website to get the ticket to match your ID. Period. Here is really consufing blurb from a TSA press release:

    First Para strongly encourages names to match…..second says middle intial won’t matter…

    “By enhancing and streamlining the watch list matching process, the Secure Flight program makes travel safer and easier for millions of Americans,” said TSA Acting Administrator Gale Rossides. “During this phase of the Secure Flight program, passengers are encouraged to book their reservations using their name as it appears on the government-issued ID they will use while traveling.”

    In the near future, small differences between the passenger’s ID and the passenger’s reservation information, such as the use of a middle initial instead of a full middle name or no middle name/initial at all, will not be an issue for passengers. Over time, passengers should strive to obtain consistency between the name on their government issued ID and the travel information they use for booking flights.

  • Suzanne

    Okay, so I am one of those foolish brides who booked my airline ticket with my new last name, not realizing I wouldn’t have time to change it on my ID. Our honeymoon is two weeks after we get married…but, that still is not enough time. I am travelling next week and don’t know what I should do…

    Any advice?

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/leocha Charlie Leocha

    Try motor vehicle dept. They normally make the driver’s licenses right on the spot, or make yourself an official looking picture ID. I have used my corporate ID that I made for myself several times. They work … well they used to work.

    Bring your marriage certificate with you in case. If you are headed out of country, it’s tougher.

  • http://leftcoastsportsbabe.com Janice Hough

    Suzanne, generally a copy of your marriage certificate will work. Make sure it’s official looking. I also would call the airline and see if they will note something in the record. it’s not a guarantee but it doesn’t hurt.

    In general, my experience is that the marriage certificate is sufficient proof. Charlie is also right that sometimes they can change it on the spot at DMV, if they can’t do it asap when you get back for future.

  • Farah

    I have booked an airline ticket online with my correct surname but a diminutive first name – Farah – instead of the full name on my passport, Farahnaz. I have rung United and had this noted on my reservation…will it pose an insurmountable problem at boarding? All my credit cards and my frequent flyer id is under ‘Farah’. Does United have an official policy of denying boarding in these circumstances automatically. Appreciate some advice.

  • JC

    I am of Chinese origin. On my birth certificate and passport it goes (names made up)
    Surname: Chung
    Name: Chin Chong James
    I would always use James Chung- credit cards, frequent flyer cards etc I am a high frequent flyer internationally including through US and never previously had any problems. But I have not flown to the USA since this new rule has been introduced and am starting to be a little concerned.
    Have booked an expensive business class round the world for my honeymoon with only my short name.

  • http://ask ralf

    I booked 4 flights to dalaman . for fam/friends. On 1 ticket I spelled
    Rebecca louise good. as rebecca loise good. ie. louise spelled wrong. Ive sent emails / fhone calls to cust.care Pegasus.com .No reply!! Would the incorrect spelling of louise prevent my friend from boarding. Please help!!! Ralf

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