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I can understand the need for airlines to have your full name on record, but why do they care about the structure of your name?

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    I don't think they care that much, they just need your information exactly how it is written in your Passport/ID. Jun 8, 2022 at 5:15
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    See kalzumeus.com/2010/06/17/… for related reading.
    – JonathanReez
    Jun 8, 2022 at 6:45
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    @JonathanReez That is a well-known read in the IT industry but what it fails to mention is that when you start trying to give people a single name field, those who do have first and last name start getting confused.
    – AndreKR
    Jun 8, 2022 at 14:33
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    It was my job for over 10 years to work on a software that (among other things) would try to guess first name, last name, title, prefix, suffix etc. from combined name fields. It also tried to identify bogus entries. The configuration necessary was nuts (we're talking several hundred thousand lines of code, not including reference data). The amount of times it got things right was astonishing, well beyond what a human could do. Yet still it got things wrong every day, because sometimes, the "rules" of names are mutually exclusive. Or because there are people named "John Doe". :-D
    – DevSolar
    Jun 9, 2022 at 8:21
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    @DevSolar: Wow! Do you still have access to that software?
    – Vikki
    Jun 9, 2022 at 20:10

7 Answers 7

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In many societies (but not all), people have one or more given names, and one or more family names.

If you want to identify a person relatively precisely, you want as much of those as possible, at least to hopefully differentiate different people in the same family (even though that often fails miserably -- I can tell you that from first hand experience, as I share the same first and last names with my father and my late grandfather).

On the other hand, it is common in many societies (but again, not all) to address people formally by using only their surname and a title (and to use only the first name in more familiar address).

Programmers and the people around them have long made arbitrary decisions on how names work so they can derive these various forms easily. For that purpose, they need to know which part of the full name is the last name.

For instance, if your name is Michel Martin, knowing that Michel is your first name and Martin is your last name and that your title is Mr, one can:

  • Derive a formal form of address: "Mr Martin"
  • Still have a more complete form of your name for ID matching and the like.

If you didn't know which one is which, you could end up saying "Mr Michel", which isn't correct. And that's of course the simplest case.

Quick anecdote: a few decades ago, when you could take a plane like you would a bus, I arrived at the counter at LAX and asked for a ticket for the first flight to SFO. The agent just asked for my credit card, and took my name from the card to issue the ticket. But it was a french card, and in France, in certain circumstances, you place the last name first, and that was the case on my card (and still is on one of my cards, but not on any of the others!). So I ended up with a ticket for JACQUES/CMR.

Having separately fields for given name and surname works most of the time for people from some Western societies, though even in that context it sometimes fails completely. As soon as you stray outside those areas, it is often catastrophic, but still, there is no easy way to achieve the intended result without this distinction. The alternative would be to ask for full name (for identity) and "form of address", but 90% of people wouldn't even understand the question, and many would think the system is dumb if it can't just guess it from their name...

Another issue is also that "name" or "full name" are very vague terms. If you just say "please enter your name", you don't know if people will enter just their surname, just their first name, or both (not even straying in the territory of additional given names, suffixes, aliases, etc.).

Asking for "given name" and "surname" (or variations thereof) separately at least gives a strong hint to users that they should enter both. Of course that fails for people who only have a single name, and even with those hints, people can easily get confused (especially if you use "first name" and "last name", as the order of writing surnames and given names is not the same everywhere).

Add to that that airline systems are often interconnected with other systems, many of which have been defined decades ago, which require the information to be split this way, and this is not going to change any time soon.

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    Add to that the common method in Spanish speaking countries of giving a first & middle name, then pairing the father's last name and the mother's last name for the offspring's last name, you can end up with something like "Jose Maria Santiago Domingo". However, the person usually doesn't use all of that, so you're trying to match names based on "Jose Santiago" or "Jose Domingo". This is an issue I run into constantly with the data I deal with daily. (No, unfortunately, I do not always get a unique ID like SSN or Employee ID.)
    – FreeMan
    Jun 8, 2022 at 13:40
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    @FreeMan While living in a Spanish-speaking country, I was sometimes confronted with web forms that would not allow me to leave the maternal last name (apellido materno) blank, even though I don't have a Spanish-style surname. I usually just repeated my surname twice. Jun 8, 2022 at 14:18
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    You could have used your mother's maiden name! :)
    – FreeMan
    Jun 8, 2022 at 14:32
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    Obligatory reference to name assumptions in computer system
    – justhalf
    Jun 8, 2022 at 18:12
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    I rather suspect that business rules that sort people by individual name components predate computerization. Jun 9, 2022 at 3:35
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If you have a name like Wang Yang in English, that should be identified with someone named Wang, Yang not some other dude named Yang, Wang.

Since it's usual in Asia to write family name first, and the opposite is usual in the West, and sometimes people swap their names around for various reasons, it's better for all concerned to keep things straight. Especially when it comes to computers and databases.

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    Unless someone has an Asian name but uses Western name order.
    – Vikki
    Jun 9, 2022 at 2:02
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    @Vikki Exactly, which is not uncommon. Jun 9, 2022 at 6:55
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    ...and means that someone named "Wang Yang" could sort with either "Wang, Yang" or "Yang, Wang", depending on where they were born, who their parents were, the phase of the moon, the positions of various planets and constellations, etc.
    – Vikki
    Jun 9, 2022 at 8:03
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    And that doesn't help, either. I'm from the one outlier in Europe with the family name coming first, and although I consistently use both the comma and uppercase family name, just to be sure, in all my external relations, people knowing my nationality will often swap it once more, just out of courtesy, arriving at the wrong conclusions again. :-)
    – Gábor
    Jun 9, 2022 at 14:24
  • The Family-name Given-name rule is common in North-East Asia (China, Vietnam, Cambodia) but South-East-Asia has several other naming rules. Thai names use Western name order and almost never have a middle name. Malaysian/Indonesian names can follow either rule depending on ethnicity but also have an additional convention of Given-name Father's-given-name. So calling someone Mr. Last-name may be interpreted as calling his father. Some people in Indonesia became so annoyed with this as to insist that they don't have last names, would leave the last name field blank and enter 3 word first names
    – slebetman
    Jun 10, 2022 at 2:35
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While other answers attempt to justify this requirement, and I agree that a system written from scratch today, might make that distinction based on English-speaking norms. However, I think there is a much more important reason it exists in this scenario: because decisions made decades ago are now hard to change.

Much of the travel industry, and particularly traditional "scheduled" airlines, is run on computer systems which ultimately date from the 1960s. Parts of them have of course evolved and been replaced since then, but each new system needs to be compatible with the last, and with other systems still running, so changing fundamental design decisions is difficult.

In particular, reservation details are stored in something called a "Passenger Name Record", or "PNR". Although not fully standardised, these are used throughout the industry, and frequently need to be exchanged between systems without loss of data.

In a PNR, names are represented as a separate first name and last name, traditionally entered and displayed as SURNAME/FIRSTNAME. (Oddly, there is not generally a separate field for the title / honorific, leading to confusing conventions and incorrect display.)

So, the systems want your first name and last name because their system has those fields; and the system has those fields at least in part because its predecessor 60 years ago had those fields.

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  • This is not wrong, but the reason both in the 1960s and today that PNRs need to track surname and given name separately is that different countries have different conventions for which of those is listed first and, so, with a single name field, you'd end up with systems incorrectly interpreting them and/or swapping them when passed from a system in one region to one in another. This is arguably even more needed now than in the 1960s, as most tickets nowadays are booked by the travelers themselves on a website, not by trained agents. Two distinct fields greatly reduces ambiguity in data entry
    – reirab
    Jun 9, 2022 at 19:05
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    @reirab On the contrary, having separate fields is a real pain for dealing with international conventions. In Russia, where should the patronymic go? In Spain, should both the first and second surnames be included? Are prepositions like "van", "ben", etc part of the surname? It is entirely because so many systems originated in English-speaking countries (let's face it, mostly the USA) that it feels normal to separate them that way, rather than having a single "official name" field that is copied from passports to PNRs to wherever. That's how it works with payment cards, for instance.
    – IMSoP
    Jun 9, 2022 at 19:47
  • Since many airline require the name to be filled in exactly as it is written in the passport, one could argue to cut the middle man and use an identifier based on the passport instead, preferably one that is globally unique (which I don't believe passport numbers are at the moment). A single field for the name would go a long way, but there are legacy problems here as well, how do you handle Ø and 赵 for example in a system that is not fully unicode compliant?
    – glaux
    Jun 10, 2022 at 8:49
  • @glaux Even if some sort of International Standard Passport Number format was agreed, the system would still need to deal with people travelling on multiple Passports (e.g. dual nationality, or to avoid mutually inconvenient records), as well as domestic flights with different ID rules. Authority control for humans is indeed always going to have corner cases.
    – origimbo
    Jun 10, 2022 at 16:12
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There are times the system will need to interact with other systems. At which point things needs to be standardized. If that system wants the first name and last name as separate fields then the airline needs to send them as separate fields.

I recently had this problem where the airline had my first name and last name, while my covid documents had first, middle, and last name. Whatever automated system the airline was using to validate my covid documents thought I was a different person. Minor annoyance in the grand scheme of things but I can imagine there are plenty of legacy systems running bits of code which require things to be in some exact order and no one is brave enough to change the code.

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  • What does the airline do if someone has only a single name, or no name at all?
    – Vikki
    Jun 9, 2022 at 2:03
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    @vikki This is a very complex problem (names in IT system in general) which often leads to all kinds of issues. I'm guessing no name at all is rare and might actually mean you can't travel. Single name I believe they are in some ways capable of dealing with, using a standardized first name.
    – DRF
    Jun 9, 2022 at 9:37
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    @DRF "Fnu" (stands for "First name unknown") is a very common invented first name. I've also heard of agencies that use "NA" for the first name, or put the single name in as both first and last. Occasionally, they will use MR or MS as the first name. So somebody called Deepak might be put in as DEEPAK/FNU, DEEPAK/NA, DEEPAK/MR, or DEEPAK/DEEPAK. Feb 16, 2023 at 19:25
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Because the name on the machine readable section of your passport is given in a specified order and it needs to match.

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    Machine-readable passports are a very recent invention, and by separating the name fields are simply following a long-standing trend of handling names separately. So this really comes back to "because it's always been that way".
    – IMSoP
    Jun 9, 2022 at 19:58
  • @IMSoP They're not just separated, they have a fixed order so airlines must know which is which. (Except for Malaysia). And they've been around for almost 40 years, hardly "very recent" (don't confuse machine readable and biometric). Jun 9, 2022 at 20:26
  • 40 years is very recent in the grand scheme of things. The major GDSes have been operating for 60 years.
    – IMSoP
    Jun 9, 2022 at 20:55
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Contrary to popular belief, names (even Western names) are not self explanatory.

Compare Tucker Carlson vs. John Oliver. No, not for their respective TV programs but they actually have middle names:

  • Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson
    To me that looks like four family names! Two of which I would consider to be Nordic (-son) and a Scottish one. What if a Mr. McNear married a Ms. Carlson and they kept both names for "McNear-Carlson" naming their son "Tucker Swanson"? Then it would only be three names and a missing hyphen.
  • John William Oliver
    That's three given names! Plus, they are extremely common given names. I'm wondering why they didn't put a Harry in there, for good measure. How do you keep that apart from Oliver Peter John (who is a psychology professor at Berkeley, as my favorite search engine tells me), if both choose to not give their middle name?

Now try to find those names, e.g. on a no-fly list. And for shits and giggles don't let anyone fly whose name is Muhammad Ali (Wikipedia lists 11 celebrities, including 3 different boxers), because one of hundreds of thousands of non-celebrities with that name is listed as no-fly. Do you also want to deny all Ali Mohammads, too?

Names matter and it's bad enough with common names, no need to add more confusion by not properly distinguishing the structure.

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    Sorry, but this is nonsense. If adding a hyphen between your middle and last names was enough to avoid a no-fly list, the system would be very broken indeed. As you point out, plenty of people have the same name as each other however you enter it into the system, so any system would have to have mechanisms for distinguishing them anyway.
    – IMSoP
    Jun 9, 2022 at 20:02
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    That system is very broken indeed, because confusing different people is a regular and common occurance. Jun 10, 2022 at 4:58
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    The American habit of using a Scottish surname meaning "Son of Kenzie" as a girl's first name is the weirdest one, I think.
    – TRiG
    Jun 10, 2022 at 14:49
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In the US, practically every organization that collects names of members, customers, participants, etc. asks for first and last names separately. As others have said, this makes it easier to produce formal and familiar greetings:

Hi, Joseph

Greetings, Mr. Smith

In my experience, at least 90% of web sites and paper forms have separate fields for first and last names (and sometimes also ask for the middle initial and/or suffixes like "Jr."). Forms that are intended to cater better to foreigners may designate these as personal name and family name/surname, since some cultures reverse the order (in Chinese, family names come first).

In addition, if the organization needs to look you up in other databases, being more precise about the name will generally make it easier to correlate them.

Why should airlines be any different?

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    Maybe you should put location restrictions on your answer. It is common in Europe and where English is spoken as main language, it is likely less common outside of those areas, as naming traditions are different in different parts of the world.
    – Willeke
    Jun 8, 2022 at 14:41
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    Thanks, I've added some clarifications.
    – Barmar
    Jun 8, 2022 at 14:52
  • As I wrote under another answer I think the last point about correlating names is bogus, because you will always need to deal with people who don't have a standardised "surname" of this sort. In fact, your mention of suffixes is one I hadn't even thought of, as in the UK they're very rare, so I would have no idea whether to expect them in the "surname" field or not.
    – IMSoP
    Jun 9, 2022 at 20:05
  • @IMSoP It's well known in the computer field that handling names in a universal way is difficult.
    – Barmar
    Jun 9, 2022 at 20:12
  • @Barmar Well, quite. I don't see how forcing them into two fields rather than one makes that any easier, though. You've still got to generate all sorts of fuzzy matches where the "double-barrelled surname" in one system might be a "middle name" and "family name", or "patronymic" and "family name" in the other.
    – IMSoP
    Jun 9, 2022 at 20:56

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