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The Sensible Traveler

Ticket and name nearly inseparable

Email|Print| Text size + By Bruce Mohl
Globe Staff / November 21, 2004

Travelers can change just about anything on an airline ticket -- the flight, the destination, whether the seat is in first class or economy -- but the name on the ticket is generally off limits.

Two readers contacted me recently, frustrated with this policy prohibiting name changes. In both cases, they had purchased airline tickets for themselves and others and subsequently learned that the people for whom they had bought tickets couldn't go. They knew airlines permitted ticket changes for a fee, but didn't know that name changes were not allowed.

''I would have paid a fee to have the names changed," said Ellen D'Isidoro. ''Do you know why they wouldn't do it for me?"

I have not been able to find a totally satisfying answer. Airline officials often cite security reasons, but there appears to be no reason why a name change handled properly would represent a security concern.

US Airways spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said a ticket is basically a contract between a passenger and an airline, and if the name on the ticket changes, the contract becomes invalid.

A spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association of America, which represents the nation's airlines, confirmed that most carriers view tickets as contracts. But she was unable to explain why airlines allow passengers to change just about everything on a ticket but the name.

Christine Bullock, manager of customer relations for the online travel agent Travelocity, said airlines have always prohibited name changes on tickets. However, before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, she said, most airlines would allow the person who actually bought the tickets to change the names on them. After Sept. 11, Bullock said, airlines became much stricter in enforcing their name-change prohibitions.

On Travelocity's website, the policy is clearly spelled out: ''Tickets are nontransferable. Once issued, you cannot change the name on an airline ticket or give the ticket to someone else to use."

''Does that mean it can't be done?" Bullock asked. ''No, it can be done, but it's at the airline's discretion."

One of the readers who contacted me said her daughter, who lives in Washington, had purchased airline tickets for herself and her boyfriend to fly to Boston for a holiday visit. Before the trip, the couple broke up. As if that weren't bad enough, the boyfriend, the only one who could redeem the ticket for future travel, wouldn't reimburse her.

D'Isidoro, my other correspondent on this issue, bought a combination air and ground package through Travelocity for herself, her sister, and her niece to fly on American Airlines to London. About two months before the flight, the sister's husband became seriously ill. The sister and her daughter were unable to make the trip, so D'Isidoro decided to go with two of her friends.

She called American and was told the airline could not simply change the names on the tickets. She received a similar response from Travelocity. She wrote appeals to both the airline and the travel agency, including a letter from her sister's husband's doctor, but neither budged. Her friends ended up buying their own tickets and staying at the hotels that were part of the original Travelocity package. D'Isidoro was out the amount of the original airline tickets.

American informed her it was unable to exchange the unused tickets for transportation vouchers because the tickets had been purchased by Travelocity and then resold to her. Such ''bulk fare" tickets must be handled by the wholesaler/consolidator that issued the ticket, in this case Travelocity.

Bullock said bulk fare purchases typically must be used as is and cannot be changed, but she said exceptions are made occasionally.

''We will always go to bat for the customer," Bullock said, but she said there is virtually nothing that can be done unless the ticket is canceled prior to departure. If that's not done, the ticket loses any value.

Bullock said problems with the names on tickets occur quite frequently and advised buying travel insurance. That's a good idea for sudden illnesses or the loss of a job, but it won't cover a breakup with a boyfriend.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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