Steph Ulyett's airline ticket should have said "Stephanie" of course, but she's always gone by Steph, so that's the name her partner typed into Expedia when he reserved their flights to Chicago.
Unfortunately, a commonly misunderstood Transportation Security Administration initiative called Secure Flight, almost made her miss her plane. At least that's what she thought. A new government rule says the name you use when buying your ticket must match your ID -- which Ulyett's did not.
There's good news for travelers like her in 2010. Several new laws and policies are scheduled to take effect next year that might upgrade the quality of your trip. Among them are Secure Flight, with its lofty promise to "improve the travel experience for all passengers," a new credit card bill, and stricter disability rules for airlines.
But back to Ulyett. The Derbyshire, England-based factory manager, whose partner had made her reservation on the Expedia UK website, was told she couldn't fix the name on her ticket. "The only alternative is to cancel your original booking and rebook your flights in the correct name," Expedia told her in an e-mail. "In this case, I regret to advise you that your ticket is completely nonrefundable, including taxes."
That's nonsense. Under Secure Flight, she might have been allowed to board her flight -- TSA says it's built "some flexibility" into the program (and hopefully, a little common sense) that would have allowed her to travel without any trouble. More to the point, United routinely makes notations on ticket records to clarify typographical errors or nicknames that inadvertently ended up in reservations.
United agreed. I helped Ulyett get in touch with a manager at the airline, and after explaining her situation, United let her change her ticket at no extra charge.
Which new rules and regulations will affect your trip in 2010?
Remember the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act signed into law last May? The full rules take effect late this winter. Already, credit card companies are required to improve disclosure of changes in terms and conditions and they must also give customers a minimum of 21 days to make a payment. But in February, a few new rules kick in.
What does any of this have to do with travel? Plenty. One of the provisions of the law is that Congress will have better credit card industry oversight. Most travel purchases are made by credit card. On a related note, my colleague Bob Sullivan recently reported on the emergence of a new consumer protection agency that could also help credit card customers.
This law can't happen soon enough. Credit card companies are raising rates in advance of February, and they've been imposing ridiculous fees, including ones for purchases made with overseas companies (even if the transactions take place in the United States, and in dollars). That's what happened to Dickerson Moreno when he charged a hotel room in Atlanta to his credit card. His credit card, Citibank, added a 31 cent foreign transaction fee, "because the money that I paid in dollars was later exchanged to some foreign frequency, which is tantamount to a foreign transaction," he says. "I was never made aware of this."
But Curtis Arnold, author of the book How You Can Profit from Credit Cards: Using Credit to Improve Your Financial Life and Bottom Line, warns that credit cards may raise these transaction charges in the near-term. "Many of these fees now are currently in the three percent range, but are likely to go higher as credit card issuers search for additional sources of revenue in the months to come," he told me. Arnold recommends checking with your card company before an overseas trip, just to make sure you won't get socked.
Secure Flight (March 2010)
The stated goal of this government program is to "shift" pre-departure watch list matching responsibilities from individual aircraft operators to the TSA. But by far the biggest effect on passengers is that the names on their airline ticket and government ID now have to match. Secure Flight also requires airlines and agents to collect a passenger's full name, date of birth and gender. Domestic airlines are expected to introduce Secure Flight through this spring. By then it will expect travel agents like Expedia to begin collecting the necessary data, according to the TSA.
Having a uniform -- and uniformly-enforced -- policy in place by next spring could be a positive development for airline passengers, who are mostly just confused at this point. But TSA-watchers like Edward Hasbrouck (www.hasbrouck.org) have their doubts. He's unsure of the March deadline, for starters. "The actual deadlines will be contained in secret security directives from TSA to airlines," he says. And even if the early 2010 deadline is met, reservation data can be made up to 11 months in advance, meaning that the program won't be fully implemented until almost a year after the last airline starts collecting Secure Flight data. Hasbrouck has a more complete assessment of the program on a privacy blog.
Air Carrier Access Act (May 2010)
Another important rule that promises to make air travel easier for those with disabilities will take effect in late spring, making flights accessible, even if they're on foreign carriers. (Many of the provisions of this rule were put in place this year, but extend to international airlines in 2010.)
The Air Carrier Access Act would allow passengers to carry FAA-approved portable oxygen concentrators aboard, as well as other medical devices, according to Candy Harrington, the editor of the magazine Emerging Horizons. "Basically because it will open up air travel to a lot more people, depending of course on their disability," she says.
These rules are a long time coming. I've lost count of how many times I've heard from passengers who wanted to carry oxygen onboard, but couldn't. Hopefully, this will bring much-needed change to the system, not just for domestic air travelers, but also international travelers with disabilities.
Of course, we can have a revised Air Carrier Access Act, Secure Flight and a credit card bill, but what good are any of them without enforcement? In the next year, travelers are likely to learn the answer to that question.
Can a new regulatory agency stop credit cards from bilking us with foreign exchange fees? Can the TSA pull off Secure Flight without compromising our privacy -- or, God forbid, forcing us to buy new airline tickets? And what happens when Grandma tries to bring her medical oxygen on board, and is denied?
I hope travel companies will do the right thing. But I've been around long enough to know otherwise.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.