Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

A Decade of Airlines Ignoring Hyphenated Names

John Scott-Railton:

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?

Scott-Railton published this back in June, and Freia Lobo of Mashable noted at the time that this issue isn’t isolated to United Airlines: Delta’s ticketing system has the same problem.

But I’m linking to it today because Delta recently updated their app to remove the check-in process and issue boarding passes automatically. That’s terrific. Unfortunately, there’s no indication that Delta or any other airline has addressed the issue with hyphenated names — I found tweets from as recently as August with the same issue, and complaints about similar character validation problems from September.

These kinds of problems are almost certainly due to legacy or outdated equipment. There’s probably some key part of these airlines’ ticketing infrastructure that will simply never accept anything other than A–Z characters — at least, not without replacing it. But with the huge number of people out there who do have hyphens, apostrophes, or diacritical marks in their names, surely a modernization of their character palette should be a higher priority.

At the very least, this shouldn’t be a passenger problem a decade after it Schneier pointed it out. If a name needs to have characters dropped for compatibility reasons, it shouldn’t trigger a security warning or require additional scrutiny for passengers.