The name game

The name game

Any process and technology for identity management must get all the basics right – like names. Depending where you are in the world, this can confuse, but can we cross the cultural divide?


We’ve all been there ─ shuffling along in the seemingly never ending queue at the boarding gate where the weary agent is diligently checking each passenger’s travel documents … checking to see that the passenger looks like their passport photo, that the passport is legitimate and not expired, and that the name on the passport matches the name printed on the boarding pass.

A slow repetitive process indeed, but a reasonably straightforward and accurate enough one if the name is a simple as John Smith or Marcel Marceau. But what if the passenger’s name is in another cultural or ethnic format and the passport name differs from the boarding pass name?

How can a ground agent be sure that the person carrying the passport of Mohamad Shahrah bin Abdul Karim is the same person as Mohamad/Shahrah which is printed on his boarding pass?

Or the person carrying the boarding pass with the name Suharto/Suharto is the person that’s simply named, Suharto, in the accompanying passport?

Indeed, this same scenario could apply to discrepancies with landing cards and passports at immigration on arrival or other similar touch points where name verification is required.


So why can this differentiation occur between travel documents? In some cases, it may be just a case of a typing error when entering information into the booking tool.

Some systems, including the US’s TSA, allow for minor differences between a passenger’s identification document and their reservation information, such as the use of a middle initial instead of a full middle name, or no middle name or initial at all.

Another obvious reason that names may differ between passports and reservation documents is for subversive purposes. In some cases, a passenger may want to substitute their own details for another if, for example, they’re on a watch list.

As airlines bear the responsibility for bringing in unauthorized persons into a country and pay heavily for this, it’s crucial for airlines to be able to more accurately identify such passengers, thus lowering the risk of transporting an illegal person, or a person who is a security risk.

However, a major cause of identity management headaches for airlines and border control agencies lies in the complexity of naming conventions across different countries, cultures and ethnicities.

What’s in a name?

In conforming to the constraints and practices that exist for passport name standards versus the requirements for entering names into airline reservation systems, names may be altered or abbreviated or salutations may often be omitted.

Examples of abbreviations in Asian and Middle Eastern names include ‘Mohd’ which is short for ‘Mohammad’, ‘Al’ or ‘So’ which is an abbreviation of ‘Son Of’, and ‘Daughter Of’ abbreviated to ’Ap’ or ‘Do’.

In addition to abbreviations, there are varied spellings for the same name. For example, ‘Mohammad’ may be ‘Mohamad’, ‘Mohamed’ or ‘Mohammed’.

Airline reservations and the associated boarding passes may also contain salutations such as ‘Mr.’, ‘Ms.’ or ‘Dr.’, ‘which may need to be omitted to allow matching against the passport name.

Spanish names, which apply commonly across South America, generally use two surnames. A woman’s name may also reference her husband’s paternal surname, for example ‘Carmen SÁNCHEZ Rubio de García’.

Carmen may be referred to as ‘Carmen SÁNCHEZ Rubio’, ‘Carmen SÁNCHEZ’, but never ‘Carmen Rubio’.

Some ethnicities, such as the Chinese, present their Surname before their Given Name commonly resulting in the Surname being interpreted by systems as the ‘First Name’, and the Given name as their ‘Last Name’. ‘Zhang Bin’ can be a different person from ‘Bin Zhang’.

The permutations are endless, resulting in the long queues and safety risks as agents diligently check the airline reservation name against the passport name by hand, sometime with the help of a trusty highlighter pen.

Lab trials

Identifying acceptable differences between passenger boarding pass and passport names is a task that SITA Lab set out to resolve. 

The Lab’s Proof of Concept trial showed that up to 50% of names did not have precise matches at an Asian airport, while 25% did not match at a Middle East airport trial.

The trial also proved that the algorithm-based name matching solution far exceeded the performance of eye-ball comparison of names and also eliminated errors due to human fatigue from repetitive data comparison.

Business needs, whether for government regulation, booking enforcement, or facilitation of check-in, will determine what type of algorithms and rule sets should be used for specific implementations of this solution going forward.

Additionally, as matching logs and statistics are accumulated for each implementation, more sophisticated rules can be further developed to improve machine capability for handling boarding pass and passport name matching.

Filling the gap

Today, there is a deficiency of standards within the air travel industry for handling discrepancies between passenger travel documents and boarding passes.

Different policies and practices are operated across different border control agencies and airlines, posing problems for many aspects of travel such as compliance with regulations and security, preventing misuse of documentation, and enabling self-service systems to function effectively.

The number of air passengers is predicted to grow at an average annual rate of between 4.2% and 4.7% through to 2033. By 2030, approximately six billion passengers annually will require security and screening at airports around the world.

As part of its Identity Management Community Innovation Program, SITA is considering how name matching rules could be established and maintained as part of a community role. 

This could lead to ways to automate this process to speed up throughput of passengers and reduce operational costs, improve the name matching success rates for airline, security and government organizations and contribute to a safer, global travel industry.


Matching names between travel documents

Any process and technology for identity management must get all the basics right – like names. Depending where you are in the world, this can confuse, but can we cross the cultural divide?

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