United Knows You Better Than You Do, And Will Be Changing Your Name Accordingly

With most airlines you can book tickets and specify your name and then it’s a different set of fields where you enter your TSA ‘Secure Flight Data’ — the name, date of birth, and gender that will be transmitted to the TSA.

I especially like this because ticketing done by airline agents sometimes involves name misspellings, no matter how many times you have them go over it and no matter how clearly you spell things out using the zulu alphabet. Which won’t ultimately matter because the TSA at the security checkpoint doesn’t generally create issues over minor misspellings. But you still want to transmit the correct name for ‘Secure Flight’.

MileagePlus posted on Milepoint that they will no longer separate ticket name from TSA Secure Flight name.

tarting this weekend, on Jan. 20th, we will begin asking for only one name – this will be the name which exactly matches the name on the government-issued photo ID with which you’ll be traveling.

And United is even going to be changing the names on MileagePlus accounts, in some cases automatically.

If there is a minor variance between your MileagePlus profile (Bob Smith) and your stored ID (Robert T Smith), we’ll automatically update the name on your MileagePlus account to match the name on the ID that we have stored for you. We’re changing it to the name on your ID because the name we print on your boarding pass must match the government-issued photo ID you use when you fly.

…If we can’t determine a solid match between your names (e.g. James Timothy Smith on your account and Robert Smith on your ID), you’ll be asked to choose which name is correct.

They’ve pre-answered some expected questions as well.

  • This update won’t affect already-ticketed reservations. You’ll still be able to travel even if the ticketed name and the name don’t match exactly but are considered acceptable matches (e.g. Mike vs. Michael or JT versus John Thomas).
  • Your United Club and 2013 Premier credentials will remain valid, even in the case of significant name changes.
  • If you’re a member of a Trusted Traveler program (such as Global Entry), make sure your name information there also matches the name on your ID.Matching these are important because they must be the same in case you have also opted-in to the TSA Pre-Check program and you want to be considered for expedited security screening. Unfortunately, there’s no way for us to see (much less modify) your Trusted Traveler profile, so it will be up to you to do this.

What could possibly go wrong?

The biggest issue for me remains misspelling on a ticket, you could still get TSA secure flight information correct (and this latter was changeable — go get the name changed on the ticket itself…!).

United is going to be making its own decisions about your name, if it decides ‘wrong’ then customers need to be cognizant of this so they can update it themselves.

But I suspect this will lead to tons of confusion, when United asks you to choose your name. For instance, your account presents you the option to chose from 3 names. Bob Smith, on your MileagePlus account. Robert L Smith on your drivers license. Robert Lee Smith on your passport. Which do you choose? You travel domestically with your drivers license, internationally with your passport. Neither the second nor the third are ‘wrong’.

And while this supposedly doesn’t affect previously booked tickets, I wonder how it will interact with elite recognition on those flights… the name on your account changes, the name on previously issued tickets do not, so there’s a risk that the name mismatch between account and those grandfathered tickets could create problems with seating, upgrades, and even mileage credit.

Maybe United IT has thought through this effectively, wargamed this extensively, and we should simply trust that “they’ve got this.” But what are the odds of that?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Bingo–you’ve hit on the massive opportunities for error with this scenario.

    My driver’s license, which I use for domestic travel, has my maiden name as my middle name. Yet my passport has my given name as my middle name.

    And how ’bout my husband, who was given the III ending as the third in his family. But with the death of his grandfather then father, he has suddenly dropped the ‘III” on his driver’s license–yet his passport still has him as a “third”.

    And those with hyphenated names? I shudder to think.

  2. My biggest problem with this is when asked to choose between 2 profiles and only difference is the date . United recognises me being domiciled in Europe, but does not show on selection screen how to read the dates. In my case:
    09/04/xxxx OR 04/09/xxxx
    dd/mm/yyyy OR mm/dd/yyyy
    50/50 chance to get it rigt – not very user friendly

  3. I would think its lot easier to change the name on your DL and MP account than your passport. But it will cause yet another nuisance for the traveller.

  4. Delta is doing exactly the same; I received the email and made the change last night. I have exactly the same problem: one version on the passport–full legal, including Jr as suffix–and another version on the driver’s license, without the Jr which my state omitted for reasons unknown. A further complication is that my points.com account can no longer update my Delta mileage, since it no longer recognizes the expanded full-legal form of my name.

  5. I wonder if they have increased the flexibility of the fields. I have always been amazed that an international airline is rigid about the very American formula – first name, middle name (only one), last name. I have had no end of difficulties both with TSA and United because they cannot deal with my name!

  6. Ok, this is ridiculous. United is giving me two options aying there is a discrepancy in my info, yet when I look at both option, they’re exactly the same.

  7. I’m concerned abut the existing reservations. Now i cannot see what secure flight data is being submitted and it lists my old name as the passenger. Ill be pissed if I lose out on pre becasue of this. Most of my flights for 2013 are already booked

  8. Oh my. Thanks for posting this. But no thanks to UA for doing it. On top of all of the other complications you and other folks have already mentioned – and I bet there are more to come – I shudder to think about how this mess will be further messed up by UA’s antiquated reservations system (SHARES). In that key respect, I suspect that this new policy will be even worse for UA customers than it might be for DL folks.

  9. Being European and having 2 last names (in British English they call it «surname» for a reason), it always amazes me on how ill-equipped Americans and American companies are to deal with the issue of people having anything out of the “first+middle+last” names standard. You cannot imagine on many times I had troubles with this! And if I look at my credit report I have almost 20 “alias” (if I ever want to get a green card I’m screwed, they will be thinking I’m a mastermind of disguise) because some companies do not accept 2 last names, some hifenate it, some accept everything, some put initials, etc., etc.
    Regarding airlines, European airlines deal much better with this (at least the ones i flown with). They request that on the name for the boarding pass you put your first and your last (the real last, if you have 2, 3 or 4) name, and then fill out the information that has to be sent to authorities with the complete information about your names. In America I once flew with a boarding pass (in Airtran) that had my first+middle and then my two last names aggregated to form a blurb of words that the poor woman at the TSA at to decipher.

    I cannot imagine how much my poor mother, with her 4 last names (one of them hifenated, making them really 5), would suffer if she lived in America.

  10. I’ve checked my United account and they’ve update my name to include my middle initial (at least I don’t think it was there before), and they had put me as “Mr.”, but said I had to select gender… Glad United is not going with conventions, and allowing people to decide their preferred treatment regardless of gender!

  11. For all the shit that is still broken with united that they seem clueless to fix— why do they insist on breaking more? Why is this needed right now?

  12. I gave up on traveling as Bill a few years back. My DL says Bill & I was always listed on the ballot as Bill when I ran for office. But my passport and my Mom when she was angry w/ me always said William Wesley. Fortunately my federally issued work ID say William ( although my email is bill.c..) so I use it domestically. I also have one of those new passport cards that I can carry in my billfold. I Still laugh though when the lady on the AA plat phone says, “Welcome back, William.” Best wishes for others!

  13. Oh no! As someone who has always gone by my middle-name, this is painful to hear. I only have two IDs, my passport & birth cert., with my birth name. DL has first initial, middle. And I register ALL my accounts with JUST my middle name!

  14. Apparently there is some ability to repeatedly change the names on the accounts on united.com with the change showing up immediately even if you already made a change on the account.

    Some kinds of name changes are certainly taking place without any kind of manual review at the time the change takes place.

    This could easily be manipulated to make for some kind of interesting outcomes.

    I assume at some point they may end up restricting the ability to change the names online in the manner currently allowed.

  15. United does not know me! Last year I sent in the documents to support name change which has been my name for 10 years. Now I log into my account and my name is changed back! I called MileagePlus and no one knew about this change. They could not help me and transferred me to IT then IT wanted to transfer me back to MileagePlus. Each time I had to verify my name and account details. After talking with four reps finally I thought I was getting close to actually having my MileagePlus account match my Gov’t issued ID. My phone call was dropped! So Frustrating!!! I gave up and did it online, United will let me know in 10-14 days if I can have my name!

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