Shakespeare famously opined in his play Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” He wrote those words in 1594.
That was a fine, fair, and true declaration for the late sixteenth century before airplanes (though President Trump might argue that airports existed then), but does it hold up in the TSA world of flying 18 years after 9/11? I recently had reason to worry about what was in my name and why that mattered to government authorities responsible for screening air passengers when my name showed up misspelled on an international ticket.
I remember in the years prior to 9/11 when tickets were not checked against IDs. All the airlines cared about then was that a warm body showed up to occupy a seat and handed over a ticket proving revenue had been collected or that frequent flyer miles had been deducted. If the name on the ticket wasn’t yours, well, so what? Welcome on board!
Sure, there was a security screen then, but it was focused on x-raying luggage for metal objects like guns and knives as well as the usual walk-through metal detector to ensure nothing dangerous was concealed on one’s body. But nobody checked the names on tickets to see if they matched photo IDs, let alone to see if one’s name was spelled correctly. I could have flown on a ticket that read “Donald Duck” at that time and been waved onto the jet bridge.
Well, those days are long gone, of course. Now the photo ID has to be certified just so even for domestic flights, and for flying abroad the name on one’s passport has to be letter for letter what is on one’s ticket. And according to the government, no exceptions. Ever. Period. Go suck an egg if you don’t like it.
So what’s wrong with this international reservation I got from my travel agent some weeks ago on an itinerary that includes flights on Delta and South African Airways (all on the same record locator):
“Travel Reservation to SKUKUZA, SOUTH AFRICA for WILLILAM ANDERSON ALLEN III”
I admit that it took me a couple of weeks of staring at it with a vague sense that I was missing something before it suddenly struck me like a bolt of lightning that there was an extra “L” in William. Yet my Delta SkyMiles number was in the record, and the itinerary showed up in my Delta.com account and in the FlyDelta app. Somebody at the agency had mistyped my first name.
No big deal, I thought. Must happen all the time. This is a small typo easily remedied by asking Delta as the issuing carrier to remove the offending extra “L” from my first name. It’s not like asking that the name on the ticket be changed to a different person. It’s just a tiny, insignificant clerical error.
Thinking it was that simple, I called the Delta Elite line, and the answering agent cordially thanked me for flying almost five and half million miles before asking what she could do for me. I asked her to pull up the rez, and then I challenged her to find the spelling mistake in my name. She enjoyed the game and cheerfully played along. After a minute of muttering, she declared herself defeated.
When I pointed out the extra letter, she immediately saw it, and then laughed. So, I asked, Can you please fix my first name in the record? She said, apologetically, that I’d have to go through my travel agent since the error was theirs. But why? I asked. Isn’t this easy as pie to fix?
No, unfortunately not, she told me. The entire ticket, she said, must be reissued, including the South African flights from Johannesburg to Skukuza and back. The travel agent would have to call a special desk at Delta, and the entire reservation would have to be scratched and rebuilt. She averred that doing so might jeopardize the SAA segments JNB/SZK/JNB because the discount fare code might not be available again once the reservation was dropped. Nonetheless, it had to be done, she said, politely.
For one lousy extra “L” in my first name—not even my surname? I lamented. Yep, she said.
Well, what if I just left it as-is? I asked. Surely TSA and the folks in South Africa would let me fly anyway. Heck, they probably wouldn’t even notice it, just like I didn’t at first. After all, I said, it’s just one letter and not in my surname.
Nope, she said, every single letter in the name on my reservation has to match precisely the name on my passport. She went on to say that a computer would try to match the name on my passport to the name in the Delta and South African Airways computers, and would kick it out.
Frustrated by the time sink this had already cost me, and dumbfounded that one extra letter could cause such a stir, I contacted my travel agency. The owner is a longtime friend I’ve done business with for many years.
After relating the entire story, I asked for his advice. He told me about several incidents with missing middle names and such on international reservations where passengers had been allowed to fly. But he couldn’t think of a case with a misspelling. He promised to contact Delta and South African Airways.
A few days later he brought word of what he’d learned from each airline. Delta would re-issue the ticket to correct my first name and would honor the fare and schedule (an elusive discounted fare available on a single day that I quickly grabbed in newly-offered premium economy on the ATL/JNB route early next year). But it would be a time-consuming pain to re-issue the ticket.
Since Delta said they could not help with the SAA legs (even though Delta had allowed the SAA flights on their record locator), he had been forced to separately contact South African Airways. SAA was not very helpful. They told my friend that the flight SZK/JNB on the return was now completely booked so that not only were no discounted fares available, but not even any seats. They did offer an earlier flight SZK/JNB which had four discounted fare seats, but SAA wouldn’t guarantee availability until the existing reservation was canceled and the ticket re-issued.
In other words, a lot of trouble, and some uncertain risks, and possibly added costs. My friend the agency owner thought I should leave the ticket as-is. He didn’t think TSA would keep me from flying over one lousy letter in my first name.
Maybe not when I leave RDU, I told him, and maybe not when Delta checks my passport against the record at the gate, but what about South African Airways in Johannesburg, and SAA again at Skukuza airport, and Delta personnel in Jo’burg when I check in for my flight home? That seems to me to multiply the risk gates I have to pass through with a misspelled name, greatly raising the odds against me. If even one person strictly interprets the rules that every letter of my name on the ticket must match every letter of my name as it appears on my passport, then I am sunk. I could be stuck in South Africa, or even stuck at RDU before leaving the ground.
My friend had no answer to that. Therefore, I asked him to re-issue the tickets, putting me on the earlier SAA flight SZK/JNB coming back, if need be.
That’s where it stands at the moment. I await word from him that it’s done.
Maybe I come across as an obsessive worrier over something that seems, on the surface, trivial. While I agree that this is absurd on its face, I cannot fight TSA. Their rules don’t bend much, if at all.
Mainly, I think the two airlines are being absurdly inflexible about a simple misspelling correction. What is reasonable about requiring that entire reservations be cancelled and re-issued to eliminate one letter in a first name?
Why do the airlines and governments make something so simple so hard? Even Shakespeare, were he writing today, would perhaps be jaded enough to write: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, if spelled correctly, by any other name would smell as sweet, if also not misspelled.”
I don’t usually ask readers to relate their experiences or to give their advice, but I hope you will comment on this:
Has a simple name misspelling ever happened to you on an international itinerary? If so, how was it handled?
If not, what would you do in this case? Would you leave it and hope for human reason along the way at the various airport security screens to override the technicality? Or would you have the ticket re-issued, even at the risk of incurring additional costs?