No name change on a dead passenger’s ticket?

Songquan Deng /
Songquan Deng /
Question: Last year my husband canceled a flight on United Airlines and received a ticket credit. A few months later, he was killed in a hit and run accident.

I have had a difficult time even focusing on things. I sent United an email a few weeks after his death, but months before his ticket credit was to have expired. I received a standard automated response that they would get back to me within 10 days on my refund request.

Actually, I wasn’t even asking for a refund. I was asking, under the circumstances, that maybe they could reissue the ticket to me so that I could use it. I supplied them with all the documentation they requested and required. I still have not heard from them. Can you help? — Robin Johnson, Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Answer: I’m so sorry for your loss. Airlines routinely refund even non-refundable tickets when passengers die. But your request came during the last part of the merger between Continental Airlines and United Airlines, and it involved switching to a different reservation system for the company.

So, while the representatives you repeatedly contacted may have wanted to transfer the name on your deceased husband’s ticket to yours, it may have been difficult, if not impossible.

If you’d simply sent United a copy of your husband’s death certificate and a request for a refund, then you probably wouldn’t have waited three months for a resolution. But I get the sense that you were trying to play fair. The ticket was canceled, and according to the rules, you were entitled to a credit, not a refund.

But those aren’t United’s only rules. It also doesn’t change the name on a ticket. The only exceptions I know of are large corporations that buy millions of dollars worth of tickets on one airline. Their contracts might allow for a name change, so that if an employee is reassigned or terminated, the ticket can be reissued under another employee’s name. Alas, you had no such contract you could invoke.

By asking for a name transfer – by trying to minimize United’s loss – you were confusing the airline. I guess no good deed goes unpunished.

Even when I brought this case to United’s attention, it had some trouble understanding what was happening, and said that your dead spouse should receive a full refund for his ticket (technically, his next of kin should get it, which would be you).
A representative told you your husband’s ticket was “non-refundable and therefore non-transferable,” but that the airline sometimes made exceptions to its rules. This was one of its times. United agreed to transfer your husband’s credit to you.\

Are airline name change rules too strict?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • sirwired

    Yeah, I can see why they were confused. Most people would have requested a refund, although I can understand some people may not be aware that a refund will be granted (even in the case of a non-refundable ticket.)

  • breeoxd

    So nice of you to help. You are a blessing!

  • Nancy Nally

    Under probate rules aren’t they legally obligated to transfer the ticket? The ticket credit is an asset of the husband’s estate, which legally became the wife’s when he died.

  • Kairho

    Even so, by the time the court gets to it, the ticket would have expired. A refund should be requested.

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Nice resolution! Love it when readers try to do all they can on their own before coming to you.

  • Alan Gore

    I think it would be fairest to all if any non-refundable ticket were automatically transferable. Customers would perceive this as much fairer, and meanwhile the airline would not be losing any money.

  • Jim Ponzo

    When the airlines switched from paper to electronic tickets it was supposed to make ticket issues easier to resolve. It has instead turned into an opportunity to make more money, more rules and less customer service. I am surprised you got United to respond positively, they are one of the worst when it comes to customer service. They even have fare rules that void a ticket if you fail to cancel a reservation before your flight time!
    Nice job helping Robin.

  • BobChi

    Speculators would snap up the less expensive tickets and sell them at a markup on a secondary market. It would be bad for customers.

  • wiseword

    They not strict — they’re stupid.

  • dourdan

    you are correct. that is why they should allow name corrections but never name changes.

    can you imagine what ebay/craigslist would look like?- people would be complaining about all the scalpers, asking the gov to step in to stop them.

  • Cam

    I am amazed that the person was worrying about an issue like this at such a difficult time for her.

  • bayareascott

    Not even close. People would purchase tickets well in advance for the lowest fare, and then sell them to people needing tickets at the last minute. Travel agents would do this too. Everyone loses except the profiteers.

  • Carver Farrow

    Not necessarily. If its non-transferable it could be voided by the Airlines. The Estate doesn’t necessarily have any more rights that the deceased.

  • Carver Farrow

    Isn’t that what consolidators do?

  • Alan Gore

    What makes me so sure that this wouldn’t happen? Because in my state, all event tickets from Pearl Jam concerts to the Super Bowl are freely resellable by law. And guess what: Event operators do not go around underpricing their concerts and games so that people could make consistent net money by speculating on blocks of tickets. It’s been tried. but for every speculator who makes a killing on a block of tickets, there is one who lost all his chips in the gamble. Arizona’s ticket brokers who remain in business make their money on commissions.

    If there is one thing that airlines still do well, it’s pricing tickets at exactly what the market will bear.

  • bayareascott

    My understanding is that they typically purchase tickets in bulk from the airline at a negotiated rate that they can then sell for whatever they like. The difference being that the airlines have agreed to such a transaction and set a price for it. That is not the same as allowing anyone to purchase a 21 or more day advance purchase fare and transfer it to someone else the day before departure.

  • 219kimrod

    Sometimes, during a traumatic experience, strange things just pop into a persons mind and stay with them until they are resolved. Happened to me, and to 2 of my friends.

  • cahdot

    good job great it worked out esp with United

  • NYer

    Has anyone ever tried to challenge the name change rule in court? Recently? Courts do not like non-assignable agreements. This is not a case of personal service. The airline is just carrying a person and who it is should not be important.

    As to security, as long as one meets whatever the deadline is for buying a ticket, one should be able to transfer it. I do not think the airlines have been pushed on this enough.

    Now with the change fees so high, there is essentially a penalty for trying to make a change, In fact it is so high, tickets become essentially totally non-refundable. This unfairness might get a court to invalidate the whole restriction, if only some consumer advocates will try.

  • EdB

    “In fact it is so high, tickets become essentially totally non-refundable.”

    Nonrefundable tickets have always been nonrefundable.

    And I doubt you would get anywhere in court. You knew the terms when you bought the ticket knowing it was nonrefundable and nontransferable. It’s not like they changed the terms after you bought it.

  • FiendishThingy

    Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when we transitioned from teletype to CRTs, we were also still able to hand-write airline tickets. And if a ticket needed a change or correction, we notified the airline of the change and “stickered” the flight coupon with the changed or corrected data. Sometimes there was even a $25 change fee. Now there’s not even a paper ticket, and if a change has to be made, it’s like buying a completely new ticket. How did a $25 charge involving the extra manual labor of changing or cancelling a paper ticket become $200 to make a small modification in a computer with a simple click of a key? That also applied to name changes – even to a completely different person and possible fare difference. If computers are supposed to make life easier and better, why does it cost so much more to process a ticket change?

  • NYer

    If tickets were transferable, problems with scalpers could be minimized by requiring that all ticket changes be done through registered frequent flyer accounts that have passport numbers and/or driver’s license numbers attached to them with the further restriction that such changes could be subject to the usual abuse rules of the program.

  • Nadia

    Not to mention the TSA complications of having Mr. Joe Smith on a ticket and then at the last minute changing it to Mr. Terr Orist.

  • Grant

    Oh my God… too funny. I just Googled Terry Orist, and there really ARE folks with that name (including one who’s a pastor). Can you imagine trying to fly with a moniker like that?! Thanks for the smile. :-)

  • IDoNotBowToCommies

    A one sided contract is not much of a contract.

  • EdB

    I agree. However, the courts haven’t said they are invalid so we have to deal with it the way they are.