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Going Offby Christopher Elliott

Airlines punish back-to-back passengers

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column marks the second in a weekly series from consumer travel advocate Christopher Elliott. His columns will appear on CNN.com/Travel on Wednesdays. Share your thoughts with Christopher on the message boards and through monthly chats.

(CNN) -- Daniel Bopp is grateful to the American Airlines reservationist who told him too much. When the Dallas management consultant called the carrier recently to see if he could score an upgrade using his frequent flier miles, the employee let it slip that he was in trouble.

"She looked at my record and said, 'Oh, there's a note in it,'" he recalls. "She said that when I checked in, the airline would confiscate my ticket."

Bopp's offense? He booked an itinerary that circumvented the airline's Saturday night stay-over clause, commonly called in the trade a "back-to-back" or "B-to-B" ticket. With a back-to-back itinerary, a traveler buys two cheaper tickets but only uses half of each one, which still ends up costing less than booking a single, less-restricted ticket.

For years, travel agents helped passengers like Bopp get around the system this way, often saving them thousands of dollars at a time. Then airlines began using their increasingly sophisticated yield-management systems to crack down on the agents, socking them with debit memos that charged the difference between the cheaper ticket and the pricier one.

But travelers have escaped the carrier's wrath -- until now.

There is evidence that the Bopp case isn't an isolated one. Insiders say the most vigilant airline, when it comes to nailing B-to-B offenders, is Delta Air Lines. Others are following its lead. In 1998, Northwest Airlines stopped a passenger traveling on a back-to-back and wouldn't let him board the plane until he paid $700 for a more-expensive ticket, according to the Canadian trade publication Travelweek. The passenger's agent then sued the Minneapolis carrier. The case is expected to be heard later this year in the British Columbia Supreme Court.

'Going after' travelers?

"I think airlines are going after more travelers," says Leslie Towler, a travel consultant in Winnipeg, Canada. "I think they're targeting the passengers whenever they can, and they're tracking them in any way they can, including through their frequent-flier numbers."

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Travelers like Bopp remain defiant. "The system is flawed," he says. After his warning from the American Airlines reservationist, he voided the tickets and bought a new one on another carrier. He'll keep buying B-to-Bs himself, Bopp adds, because he saves at least $18,000 a year by doing it.

American and Delta didn't return calls before this story was published. However, both carriers have made their feelings on the issue clear in the past. In memos obtained by "Going off," the airlines spell out their policies on B-to-Bs -- and what might happen to violators.

Delta cautions that it may "refuse to board the passenger, confiscate the misused ticket and require the customer to pay the difference" between the cheap ticket and the pricey one. American has issued similar warnings to its travel agencies in the past.

A United Airlines memo also says the carrier reserves the right to "refuse to honor the tickets that are being misused. It is important that customers be aware that United may, where appropriate, take action in response to situations that are identified. A passenger who engages in one of these practices does so at his or her own risk."

Travelers fear reprisals

These aren't empty threats. Frequent travelers -- none of whom would go on the record for this story -- are becoming increasingly nervous that their hard-earned mileage may get stripped from them or that they might get fined or otherwise punished by a carrier. There are stories making the rounds, difficult to confirm, that more frequent travelers are getting caught with B-to-Bs and suffering painful consequences.

Airline insiders argue that back-to-back tickets are a violation of their published tariff, and that they're well within their rights to crack down on travelers trying to save a buck. But with the major carriers raking in very respectable earnings -- Delta made $1.1 billion in its last fiscal year and American earned $737 million for the calendar year -- this pursuit of the passenger seems almost petty.

Bizarre, too. Ticket prices don't make any sense to begin with. You can literally sit in front of your terminal and watch the fares change from second to second. And now the airlines are doing something even less logical by penalizing passengers who try to use this defective system to their advantage.

Strange, indeed, for an industry that now claims to put its customers first.


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