Will Your Airline Cancel a $7,000 Flight over a $5 Charge?

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Can an airline’s anti-fraud policy end your international flight before it begins? During a recent trip, I learned it’s possible.

When I went to Africa a few weeks ago, I used frequent flyer miles to book a business class award ticket from Delta. My entire expense for this $7,000 ticket was $200 in taxes, which I charged to a credit card. A few days after purchasing it, I contacted the airline and changed a flight, resulting in another $5 in taxes. This charge went on a different credit card.

While planning my trip, I learned airlines can deny passengers going to certain destinations boarding unless they present the credit card used to charge just the taxes on an award ticket. Concerned, I called Delta to ask which credit card they wanted to see: the first one used for $200 in taxes, or the second one for the additional $5 in fees? The airline representative said they would only accept the second card used to charge the $5.

In other words, on itineraries that include certain destinations in the developing world, Delta and some other airlines will not allow passengers to board any of flight unless they show the credit card used to pay for their airfare, or in the case of award flights, the taxes.

Charging an overseas flight to a credit card? Don’t leave home without it!

But what would the passenger do in the event his card were lost, stolen, expired, canceled or otherwise rendered unusable between making a reservation and traveling? Remember, airlines accept reservations 11 months before departure. According to the Delta representative I spoke to, the passenger would have to present credit card statements from the old card, along with a letter from the passenger’s bank indicating what happened to the card.

What does a passenger do when a credit card issued to one person is used to purchase travel for another? The credit card holder is supposed to present the card, which should remove the hold from the traveler’s account. There is no consideration of the possibility that the credit card holder does not live anywhere near an airport served by the airline.

Putting Delta’s anti-fraud policy to the test

To see how effective Delta’s anti-fraud measures were, I went to the airport a week before my flight and presented the card used for the $5 charge, which was my wife’s card and had been reported lost or stolen when she misplaced it (she had since found it). The Delta representative at the Denver airport didn’t look at the name on the card or even check that it was valid. The representative just verified the last four digits of the card number and assured me that the hold had supposedly been cleared. Nevertheless, I was still asked again on the day of flight to show the card, and again told I would be denied boarding until I did so.

One more time, I presented Delta with an invalid card in another person’s name, which they accepted as an anti-fraud measure.

On another occasion, I witnessed a Delta agent in Atlanta tell my father he would have to purchase a new ticket if he couldn’t produce the credit card used to pay just the taxes on his international award ticket.

How common is this?

After my trip, I reached out to Delta via their passenger complaint form as well as a call to their press relations department, but received no response in either case. Nevertheless, I have read reports online of other airlines with similar requirements, but no other domestic airline was said to enforce this policy as strictly as Delta. With other airlines, passengers worked around these requirements simply by using online check-in. In my case, Delta sent me emails reminding me to check in online, even though their system would not allow me to do so.

Does Delta inform passengers of this critical requirement?

There is one paragraph on their website that mentions credit card presentation, on their About Online Booking page. But my itinerary was booked over the phone, so that clause wouldn’t apply to me (Delta’s website doesn’t allow customers to book international partner awards online). I also searched their entire International Contract of Carriage for any reference to credit card presentation requirements, but there is none.

What you should do

Any time you travel internationally, carry the credit card used to book your flight. If you don’t have that card, or are not sure which card you used, contact your airline well in advance to try to clear the hold before you travel. Be especially cautious when traveling to developing countries. Delta and other airlines impose this policy selectively on travelers to destinations where they think there is a higher likelihood of fraud. My travel was to Kenya and Uganda, but I have read reports of these holds being placed on travel to parts of Asia and Latin America.

By understanding how these credit card fraud holds work, you can take the necessary steps to ensure that your travel plans aren’t grounded.

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