When Is A Legal Ticket Illegal (And Vice Versa)?

For many years debate has raged concerning the correct construction and use of international airline fares. The argument is all about interpretation and clever manipulation of rules which can result in travellers and their employers enjoying major savings if their agent is smart enough to know the "loopholes." Such intelligence was, and still should be, a key differentiator between savvy and average TMCs. [more]

Unfortunately airlines do not see it that way. They say the only interpretation of the rules that is acceptable is theirs and are prepared to take strong actions against both the issuer and user of tickets that do not meet their definitions of acceptability. As a result travellers have been stopped at airports around the world and had such tickets confiscated and TMCs have been both fined and prevented from issuing tickets in future.

Things have been reasonably quiet on this subject over recent years but no more. Through improved monitoring systems and outsourced cheap labour, airlines are able to identify "misuse" and take action in order to recoup what they feel they have lost, via direct billing of the issuer and subsequently the buyer. As a result some such cases are being tested through the courts with interesting results.

What kind of fares are these? They come under a number of headings such a "cross border," "back to back" and "throw away" coupons. Say a traveller is based in London and wishes to go to JFK; however, a ticket issued in Paris to JFK via London is cheaper so he buys that and throws away the Paris to London coupon. Back to back is where you buy two sets of tickets for two journeys but end up using the coupons out of sequence in a way that takes advantage of a cheaper fare. When these tickets are issued there is absolutely nothing illegal about them. They only become illegal in the eyes of the airline when they are used either out of issuing sequence or coupons remain unused. Another classic is when you want to by a one way ticket but can actually find a special restricted return promotional fare for less. A customer did this recently by buying a return ticket for €110 when the full one-way fare was €528! Crazy but true, and this one ended up in court when the airline concerned discovered the return portion was not used. The airline lost the argument.

So what is the current status and where is it all taking us? Airlines will argue that we are talking about their tickets and they will interpret the rules as they wish. They may even point out that although TMCs rarely get paid commission anymore, they are still appointed by them and therefore should obey their interpretation. Finally they will point to their own agent/airline rulebook which basically says they are empowered to deduct whatever they feel like from an agents account to "rectify" breaches of rules. So much for the agent now "belonging" to their clients as the suppliers still have an operational stranglehold on them.

As I said earlier this totally unsatisfactory state of affairs has been rumbling along under the radar screen for as long as I can remember but it seems this may be starting to change as corporations gain more control of the supply chain and organisations like the European Commission see such actions as anti-competitive. There have been a number of test cases through the courts and those that I know about have all come out in favour of the TMC or traveller rather than the airline.

My conclusion is, and I am not a lawyer, that using such interpretations, loopholes or whatever you want to call them are not against the laws of the land. What they are against is the interpretation of the rules dictated by airlines and it is they that decide to take their "law" into their own hands by stopping travellers and fining TMCs even when the courts have proved them wrong. I am afraid it is just another example of what I see as a major financial control and undermining of the travel supply chain orchestrated by the airline industry association IATA. Unless this is sorted out, the supplier will always end up pulling all the strings in this particular business.

Should we be that bothered? Yes we should as in these tight financial times corporations should be able to take advantage of these legal opportunities without risk of seeing their executives detained at airports. If airlines don't like it they should close the loopholes and publicly justify their actions. Mind you, if Ryanair is deranged enough to seriously contemplate charging €1 to use their in-flight toilets, anything is possible!