In March, Malhotra booked a flight from Newark, N.J., to New Delhi on United Airlines for his wife, using her maiden name, which matched her passport. But in the meantime, she became a U.S. citizen and took his last name.
"United is telling me the only way to fix this is to buy a new ticket with the correct last name," he said.
United doesn't prominently disclose its name-change policy online, but the industry standard is that minor slips such as typographical errors can be corrected, while major alterations require either a change fee or a new ticket.
Airlines say it's because of post-9/11 security concerns, but critics claim that intentionally vague policies have added millions of dollars in change fees and ticket-replacement charges to the airline industry's coffers.
An interesting thing happened this year when a new Transportation Department rule went into effect, allowing passengers to cancel an airline reservation within 24 hours of making it.
The rule permitted most ticketing errors to be fixed, effectively threatening an important source of revenue for the airline industry. (Among the major airlines, only Southwest Airlines does not charge ticket change fees.)
As a result, some airlines took an even harder line on name changes. Consider what happened to Belinda Johnson -- that's Belinda with a "B" -- when she booked a round-trip airline ticket on United from Cleveland to Paris through Travelocity.
"The ticket agent had a heavy Indian accent, and I did not realize that he had misspelled my name as Delinda instead of Belinda until I called them to find out why I hadn't received confirmation letters," she said.
By then, the 24-hour rule no longer applied. Travelocity deferred to United, which said that it allows "no name changes."
That seemed a little harsh, so I contacted Travelocity and United to see whether I could get the mistake corrected. Charles Hobart, a United representative, said that the airline's policy on changes is that it has no policy on changes.
"Tickets are nontransferable, and the name on the ticket needs to match the customer's government-issued identification," he said. "Customers should contact reservations if they have questions regarding an error on their ticket. Of course, we also encourage customers to make certain that the names match before purchasing their tickets."
OK, so how about Delinda ... uh, I mean Belinda?
"A single letter change shouldn't be a problem," he said.
United corrected her ticket.
If you think that this policy -- or lack of one -- makes it seem as if airlines are trying to cash in on our mistakes, you're not alone. The rules at other airlines, from Delta ("Name changes are not permitted," says its site) to US Airways ("If there is a discrepancy (between your ID and ticket), go to the airport ticket counter with your passport to update your reservation," it advises) are similarly vague, restrictive or both.
Only one domestic airline, discount carrier Allegiant, allows name changes for a $50 fee, but with significant restrictions.
After 9/11, many airlines enthusiastically enforced an exact-name-match requirement on tickets, citing security concerns.
To some industry observers, that seemed disingenuous. If the airlines were worried about having the correct names on their passenger manifests to compare against a passenger watch list, wouldn't they want to make it as easy as possible to get the correct name on a ticket rather than obstruct the process with change fees?
When Secure Flight, the government-run program that compares passenger names against a watch list, took over in 2010, it was decidedly more flexible, using birthdays and other personal information to make sure that you were who you said you were. So it would have various ways of verifying that "Delinda" was actually "Belinda."
Maybe that's the solution here too. If the federal government can determine the identity of a passenger, why can't an airline?
And if Secure Flight clears passengers with name discrepancies on their tickets through the airport checkpoint, then why not let those passengers board? To do anything less would be to unjustly enrich yourself via the innocent errors some passengers make.
Fortunately, ticket agents understand that mistakes happen. So when Malhotra, the passenger whose wife had changed her name, visited the United ticket counter in Newark and presented her paperwork, the airline employee corrected her ticket too.
Unfortunately, I doubt that most passengers are that persistent.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of "Scammed." Read more travel tips on his blog, www.elliott.org or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2012 Christopher Elliott/ Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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