Vanilla Air: The Middle Name Scam

Even compared to most LCCs, booking with Vanilla Air is a gamble. Roll well, and you'll get a flight similar to on a 'real' airline, including free baggage, sometimes for considerably less. But roll badly and you'll discover what's perhaps the world's most elaborate booking scam, and either be forced to part with hundreds of dollars for a new, last-minute ticket, or be left stranded in Japan. Vanilla Air, will then use the profit they made from your flights to subsidise luckier fliers' tickets (and make a healthy profit). How's your luck this trip?

October 2016 Update: The new Vanilla Air Middle Name Scam

The old Name Truncation Scam appears to have evolved into a much more elaborate scam, which now targets anyone with a middle name, as has been reported to this website by victims who have been refused boarding and received no support from Vanilla Air except the option to purchase a new, expensive ticket on the spot. Like the name truncation scam, it exclusively targets foreign (non-Japanese) passengers with Western names (in this case anyone with a middle name).

If you enter your first and last names just as requested on the booking form by Vanilla Air' you will be told your ticket is "invalid" at the airport, from which this elaborate scam unfolds.

Whether or not middle names should be included on tickets varies by airline, but all real airlines acknowledge that as long as the first and last names are entered correctly (as shown before purchasing) the middle name is irrelevant, especially if their booking system doesn't explicitly ask for it (as many of the world's best airlines don't). I recently discovered that my Middle Name wasn't on a ticket with China Airlines (a great airline from Taiwan) when the self check-in didn't work. I was pointed to the check-in counter, where the helpful staff member simply added my middle name in a few seconds and checked me in as usual.

But Vanilla Air have clearly taken advantage of this difference in policy to develop this clever scam which sees many passengers with middle names denied boarding, leaving them stranded at airports or forking out huge sums for last-minute inflated ticket prices.


When the customer clicks on the 'first name' a tiny warning comes up advising passengers to enter both their first and middle names together as a "first name".  If you notice this you should be okay, but for most people by the time they find this site it's too late.  
 
This new scam can be avoided easily enough by adding a middle name in the right place - if you read this or notice the fine print - but the cunning planning behind these two elaborate scams demonstrates the determination of this rogue airline to cheat their passengers out of their flights and their money. This allows the airline to increase its profits by overbooking planes (more than most airlines) knowing that a significant number of passengers will be denied boarding over issues with names that are manufactured by their own booking system. And of course if and when seats are still available they can then extort last-minute fares from their unsuspecting passengers if they are still determined to fly with Vanilla Air. This is not the type of airline I would want to depend on for safe and comfortable travel.

The (old) Name Truncation Scam

As of May, 2017 I am unsure of whether or not this scam is still operational, or whether or not the focus of the scam has shifted entirely to the Middle Name Scam (see above). If anyone has fallen victim of this scam recently (any time in 2017) I would appreciate it if you could complete the survey at the top right ("share your experience with an LCC in Japan").

1. Names get Truncated

Somehow in the booking process given names get truncated down to initials. No one has managed to figure out how this works, but one suggestion is that their website rejects entries completed by autofill. Of course this wouldn't matter if this were the only problem, as passengers would confirm their name and details before they pay, and check the name on their ticket, right?

2. No Name Confirmation During Booking 

Unlike all other airlines (and most other online booking systems) Vanilla Air don't confirm the passenger name/s at any time during the booking process. On most other airlines this essential step occurs at the final payment page, so customers can double check everything before entering their credit card details. But Vanilla Air confirm the flight time only, and then asks for a credit card. The customer never sees the name the system books the ticket under.
Vanilla Air are the only airline to ask for a credit card without once confirming the passenger's name. It's a very profitable 'oversight'.


Update: Someone has pointed out that an exception occurs when booking for more than one person together, and purchasing extra services (such as luggage). In this case the system shows the passenger names in order for the customer to choose whose ticket to assign the extra services to ("Select which passenger will carry an extra 20kg."). But since Vanilla Air allow one item of luggage per passenger it's unlikely many people will choose to carry more than this, especially with Japan's excellent Takyuhaibin system.

3. No Name in the Email Confirmation

In this email the passenger's surname has been truncated to "D". Other passengers have reported having their entire names truncated to first and last initials, but they assumed it was normal, or a new security measure. However, unbeknown to the unsuspecting passengers, this makes the tickets invalid, forcing customers to part with hundreds of dollars for a new ticket. And there's no way to know whether your name is recorded correctly because the box is too small.
 
This is where the scam becomes particularly elaborate: the email confirmation comes as a pretty box, however the space for the passenger name/s is too small for most non-Japanese names, since Japanese usually write their names using four Kanji (Chinese characters).

Combined with the lack of confirmation at payment, anyone with a name longer than a few letters will have no way to know whether or not their reservation is in their real name, and thus whether their ticket is valid until they check in, which conveniently happens to be the cut-off time to amend the name on a ticket. Passengers are then asked to purchase a new ticket for an exorbitant price, or left stranded. Of course with the standard overbooking of all flights (by all airlines) the airline profits from this scam either way, as if the passenger refuses to purchase another ticket on the same flight the airline have received money for a service they never provide.


Why do Vanilla Air Use this Scam?

It seems hard to believe, but with this two-step scam there's really no way to know whether or not you'll be one of the lucky ones who gets to fly, or one of the passengers told that your ticket is "invalid". Of course it's also not possible to find out whether or not the scam was intended or just a lucky coincidence, but Vanilla Air are certainly well aware of the situation and maintaining it, and  cashing in on all the affected passengers. Vanilla Air support staff admitted to me (before they know they would be quoted on this website) that customers are denied boarding over problems with passenger names regularly, and seemed to treat it as just a regular part of Vanilla Air's business.

Vanilla Air's prices are well below EVA Air and China Airlines from Taiwan, with whom they share their popular Taipei-Tokyo service and appear to offer the same service, including free baggage. Staffing and administrative costs will be lower for the Taiwanese Airlines, yet both reported net losses last year. It seems likely that the extra profit from this scam (perhaps a few passengers per flight) could generate a significant income for the airline, especially when their prices are so low that they are likely to make little if any profit off regular passengers (the lucky ones who get to fly).
 
Japanese are, on average, incredibly honest, and this is the only elaborate Japanese scam I've ever come across in several years living in and visiting the country regularly.
 

Vanilla Air's Own Terms and Conditions Say it All

It makes no difference to Vanilla Air whether they change two characters or more in a name. The only possible purpose for this ridiculous rule is to profit from would-be passengers whose names get cut off - by their booking system - since for whatever reason it often truncates names down to initials. It's clear that enough people fall for this scam that it needs it's own question in the FAQ. (screenshot from Vanilla Air's official website, August 7, 2015)

Final Advice

If you have a ticket booked with them already, I recommend calling them to check your name, however you'll do VERY well to actually have a person answer the phone. If you can't get hold of them I would call your bank and see if it's possible to reject the transaction, and re-book on a more reputable airline. If you really want to take the risk of booking with Vanilla Air then I suggest using a browser without autofill (which Vanilla Air staff have blamed for the "problems") calling to check that your name was entered correctly and having a backup plan, which is a good idea with any LCC anyway. 

Summary: How Vanilla Air's Name Change Scam Works

Vanilla Air "Booking Process" Explained

To seek advice or to report your story, please visit the Vanilla Air Scam page on Facebook.

See also: Vanilla Air on Ripoffreport.

8 comments:

  1. We used Vanilla Air on two flights of a Japan trip in 2014. (New Chitose to Narita, and Narita tto Hong Kong). I had researched the flights myself but handed over my research to Flight Centre who confirmed the research and did the bookings. We paid Flight Centre, but got the cheaper prices. We had absolutely NO problems with name truncations or the flights themselves. We would gladly fly Vanilla again.

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    1. That's great to hear - thanks for the feedback. I guess going through Flight Centre they made sure that your names were entered correctly (they may be able to access the actual name the ticket is booked under, which ordinary passengers who book online can't because of the way their system is set up as explained above). And Flight Centre would probably have taken responsibility and booked you another flight at their expense if you had been refused boarding.
      I'm glad your holiday went well, and many people like yourself have a good experience with Vanilla Air (as with any LCC) and recommend them to others. But unfortunately many, many people don't, and this website is to warm people what can - and often does - go wrong, so people can decide for themselves whether or not it's worth the risk of being left stranded.

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  2. This is very helpful, as I am currently choosing which airline to fly for my Taipei vacation. Now I'm probably off to Peach or Jetstar. Thank you very much!

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  3. Thanks Jaja! Did you try China Airlines (from Taiwan)? They sometimes have excellent deals (usually when booked ahead) which are similar prices to LCCs, but with a real airline contract, so they are MUCH more reliable. But for LCCs between Japan and Taiwan then yes Jetstar and Peach are probably best.

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  4. Does anyone know if they'll let you fly domestic without your middle names? I only just found out about this scam and realised I've left mine off. My boyfriend is flying with me and he has TWO middle names! I'm hoping that a domestic flight will be OK....

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    1. Hi Suzie
      I highly doubt they will let you fly domestic without your and your boyfriend's middle names on your tickets, as this scam is clearly set up to extort new, last-minute fares from foreign passengers with middle names, so I don't see why flying domestic would make a difference. It is possible that you'll be able to check in at the self-check in kiosks, in which case they may never check your passport, but I think with Vanilla Air (unlike Peach) everyone has to have their passport check at baggage drop, perhaps partly to catch people out on this scam? Can you cancel your flight and rebook it? At least you know now before turning up at the airport.

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    2. Well, my partner and i just landed in Sapporo, and maybe we're lucky but it was totally fine. When arrived 2 days ago in Tokyo I went to the Vanilla Air counter to ask if it would be a problem that our middles names were not on the ticket and the lady said it was not an issue. Then we went through, had our tickets checked numerous times, no one questioned us. It .At be more of an issue for international flights where you need to have the same name as your passport. Technically you don't even need a passport for a domestic flight. Still, if I book with them again I'll be very careful with the names!

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    3. Hi Suzie

      Thank you for your reply, and sorry I just saw it now. I'm very pleased to hear that you made it to Hokkaido on Vanilla Air ok, and I hope you had a great time in Japan also. It's a wonderful country!

      I guess you are correct that they have no reason to challenge it given that a passport isn't needed for a domestic flight. However (for anyone else reading this) while it's true that for international flights the name on the passport has to match the name on the ticket, when this happens real airlines just correct the name on the ticket at check-in, so the passenger can fly. This recently happened to me on China Airlines (a great airline from Taiwan). The only reason I found out that my middle name was missing was because the auto check-in machine couldn't find my ticket, and the attendant said that was why and directed to the usual check-in counter. It took a few seconds for the check-in staff member to sort it out, and of course it didn't cost me any time, money or stress - she didn't even mention it. This is what any decent airline would do, and it happens regularly.

      Vanilla Air use this as an excuse to extort new fares out of passengers. But it's great to know this doesn't happen on domestic flights at least!

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