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Could you legally change your name to claim an unused airline ticket?

Writing from Bahrain, Peter Griffiths heckles about some advice I offered to a reader. They had spent a fortune on an air ticket and could no longer travel. Peter picks up the story:  “You suggested that, if a ticket that someone is unable to use is of especially of high value, it could conceivably be worth changing one’s name and obtaining a new passport in the name on the ticket.

“Would this be legal? In any case it sounds very unethical to me.”

I am frequently contacted by people who, for various reasons, cannot use a ticket they have bought. Invariably the strings attached mean most or all of the value will be lost if they do not travel.

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In such cases, the first option I recommend is to contact the airline to ask if it will show leniency. For example, British Airways has a generous policy that states: “If you have been prevented from travelling by events beyond your control and all or part of the fare for your ticket is non-refundable, we will give you a credit for the non-refundable part of the fare.”

To be considered, you must have not yet started the journey, and you must provide evidence of “the events beyond your control”. BA will then decide if you qualify.

A sudden and unexpected deterioration in health of the passenger or a close relative or travel companion is likely to be regarded generously, while a wish to attend a key football cup game may not.

Note that the passenger gets a “credit note” for future travel, not cash, but this can be given to someone else and so it has substantial value.

Regrettably, unhelpful travel agencies can often thwart this benevolent arrangement, by insisting that the traveller’s contract is with them, not the airline, and it explicitly rules out any kind of refund.

So if the airline credit note does not work out, the next port of call is travel insurance. Again, though, many of the reasons for not flying are uninsurable – such as a new job that rules out the intended journey.

Once these two options are exhausted (or not tried, because they would clearly fail), some travellers will sell or give the ticket to another individual. 

Switching tickets has been going on for decades, and used to be much easier. Up until the 1980s (when, incidentally, Bahrain was the big Gulf hub rather than a mere sideshow to Dubai and Doha), often the only reconciliation between the person and ticket was gender. Hostel and university noticeboards would carry cards offering “London-Bombay air ticket, £100, female”.

Today, the recipient obtains a passport in the name on the ticket.

That is a straightforward process which, even if the “identity thief” changes their name back after the trip and gets a new passport in their original name, costs around £200 – a fraction of the cost of a long-haul ticket.

Is this practice legal? Well, in the small print that no one ever reads, airlines typical say: “We will carry you only if you are the passenger named in the ticket.” Someone who obtained a new passport in the “right” name would clearly meet this stipulation. But there is likely to be another condition that says: “You cannot transfer your ticket.”

The passport trick would breach that, but I have never heard of it being tested in court. As you know, the condition applied at the departure airport is simply: “Does this person have a valid passport, and is it in the name on the flight ticket?”

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I imagine legal problems might arise only if someone bragged about the ruse to airline staff.

But is impersonation for the purposes of circumventing ticket rules ethical? You will have to make your own mind up about it.

Airlines are not, on average, very profitable. One way they seek to protect their revenue is by selling cheap-but-restrictive tickets, knowing from experience that some of them will not be used – and perhaps overbooking accordingly.

I can see an ethical argument that the passport trick deprives an airline of earning money from a seat that would otherwise become available for re-sale. But in most of the cases I hear about, there is genuine distress, and I regard the technique as an understandable solution to an unfortunate problem.

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