#HyphensUnite: A Decade of United Airlines Ignoring The Hyphenated

United Airlines keeps changing my hyphenated last name, costing me up to hours of trouble when I travel. When an airline like United changes travelers names, all parts of a trip can be affected I am not alone in this: hyphenated users have complained about this for a decade. There are tens of thousands of hits on Google for this problem. 

By deleting hyphens, United Airlines creates a Passenger Name Record mismatch, which torpedoes smooth air travel. Here are some common problems for people with hyphens who fly on United, I have encountered all of them:  Online check-ins don’t work, forcing travelers to arrive early at the airport to get a paper boarding pass, or miss their flights. Customs flags travelers arriving in the US for extra scrutiny, resulting in long waits. TSA may send travelers back to airline counters.

United has publicly shrugged about this for over a decade. Noted security expert Bruce Schneier even blogged about the issue of hyphenations nine years ago. @united can be found on twitter advising passengers to simply delete their hyphens, which is bad advice and may result in a records mismatch, and delays. In 2017 the problem is still not fixed. Is United Airlines incapable of such a simple change?

United Arbitrarily Changes The Names of Hyphenated Travelers

The problem is so bad that I have decided to write this post.

John Scott-Railton

A fine name. It is pretty unique, and it helps to differentiate my research! Thank you, progressive parents. United, on the other hand, has a problem with my name. So they change it when I try to book flights, arbitrarily deleting the hyphen and splicing my last names together.

United’s Mileage Plus frequent flyer program recognizes the correct spelling of my name.

Figure 1: United.com accommodates hyphens, it seems

However, when booking tickets with United, directly on the United site, the hyphen disappears and my last name is concatenated to SCOTTRAILTON.  Anyone with a hyphenated name will recognize this. As will many with two last names. Or a middle name. Or a long name.

Figure 2: United books the ticket under the wrong name, dropping my hyphenated name

 

The result?  United has issued me a ticket that is not in the name on my travel documents. This creates a Passenger Name Record (PNR) mismatch which raises flags everywhere. Thus begins the journey of pain.

When United Deletes My Hyphen It Can Cost Me Hours

The pain starts with online check in. I am unable to receive boarding passes from United because of this problem when traveling internationally to the US.  

 

Figure 5:Hyphenated customers waiting for their boarding passes from United (not really). Image: Flickr orijinal

Lines, Lines, Lines

Instead of proving me a boarding pass, on flights into the US, I am encouraged to go to a kiosk at the airport.  So much for seamless travel in 2017.

Figure 3. United tells me that I cannot get a printed boarding pass from online check in

From experience, however, the same mistake can result in an error at the kiosk, requiring me to wait in a line to receive my paper boarding pass.

Figure 4. I get this missive in lieu of a boarding pass when checking in online

 

The dreaded X

When entering the United States my entry is typically flagged for additional scrutiny when I travel with the wrong name.

Of course I flag! This is not the name on my passport. United does not allow me to use my legal name.

The result is extra scrutiny, and a long wait. Typically, after the “extra attention” line,  I arrive in front of an officer who looks at boarding pass and passport, notes the mismatch, and waves me through. As anyone who has been in this situation knows, on a busy day these lines can last a long time.  After numerous conversations with officers, I have repeatedly had it verbally confirmed that my dreaded X was caused by this mismatch.

The Result: My Travel Takes Longer

I am a regular business traveler. Yet my travel is just-as-regularly disrupted by the additional burdens placed on by United’s failure to accommodate my hyphen. Depending on the trip, and the airport where my travel starts, this can cost me serious additional time, stress, and uncertainty. 

As the rest of the world is passed through increasingly automated customs and screening, we hyphenated-last-names are stuck with a problem caused by an archaic set of systems that cannot handle simple characters.

United Airlines Has Ignored Complaints About Hyphens For a Decade

United has known about problems with hyphenation for a long time. How long?  There is more than a decade’s worth of online posting complaining about the problem. Some travelers have gone as far as contacting United Airlines.  The official response often looks like a bit of a shrug. United has an unfortunate history of not addressing problems until they reach a critical mass of frustration. Or an unfortunate incident.

Apparently, hyphenated United Airlines customers are not a priority.

Figure 6: Thousands of posts and complaints going back a decade about United and hyphenation

The blog posts describing the issue go back more than a decade. This adds up to a lot of unhappy, inconvenienced customers.

Some of the posts also highlight United’s customer focused approach to the problem: ‘change your name.’

Figure 7: United basically saying “change your name”

A follow-up updated noted that the issue was not with United.com, but with their reservations system.

The only mention on united.com of the issue of hyphenation is a page explaining the hoops travelers need to jump through to change their name in Mileage Plus.  Which is, of course, not the problem for a traveler like me.  The problem comes when United makes the booking.

Figure 8: United Airlines does not have much documentation for people with hyphens in their names

A decade later, hyphenated travelers like me still face this problem with United Airlines.

United to Hyphenated Customers: Do Not Book Under Your Legal Name

The @united handle is active on Twitter, responding to all sorts of passenger issues. Including tweets from panicked hyphenated customers.

Figure 9: United confirms that their tickets cannot support hyphens or other characters

The typical advice? Put your last name together. In other words? Do not book your ticket under your legal name. This advice is likely to result in a Passenger Name Record mismatch, causing customers additional problems.

 

 

Figure 10: @united advising customer to change name, likely creating a PNR mismatch which can lead to travel delays and problems

Not all travelers are so polite.  Some point out United’s obvious lack of attention to the wide variety of names. To which @united cheerfully asks if the check in happened successfully, and promises to take the feedback on board.

 

Of course, the problem persists.

 

Figure 11: United flyer complains about hyphen issue, gets a chipper reply from @united. But the problem persists.

Despite the continuing flow of tweets from flyers having this issue, United Airlines does not seem to have made any progress in fixing it.

Will United Stop Forcing Customers To Use Incorrect Names?

United needs to stop shrugging when the hyphenated among us have a crummy customer experience. There may be short term solutions, such substituting spaces for hyphens, but the real solution is to work with their reservations and database providers to ensure that hyphens are treated correctly.  

Failing to do so means that some customers are subjected to this extensive additional disruption, and hours of valuable time wasted in lines, for reasons that are not under our control (our names!).

Buying a plane ticket should include the fear of a security issue, missed flight, or travel delay simply because of a “-” in a name.

 

Figure 12: Security expert Bruce Schneier pointing out problems with hyphenated names in flight reservations almost a decade ago

United is not the only airline with this problem.  As noted security expert Bruce Schneier pointed out almost 9 years ago, some airlines appeared to have been profiting from their inability to handle hyphens by charging change fees. It is unclear how widespread this practice was, or is. However, it points to the fact that this issue is not new. It is not even fresh. George Bush was president during many of these complaints.

So, why ask United if others have the same issues? Because sometimes asking one person is more effective than making a general request (see: diffusion of responsibility). I am also not a customer of any third party companies that might provide them with reservation and booking services. But United is their customer, and can make requests.

So, United Airlines, is it a waste of words to ask you to tackle this after 10 years of the same customer complaint? I suppose I will know the next time I have to check in for a flight to the USA…