Is it ethical to use only half of your airline ticket?


As long as there have been discount fares with rules, travelers have been trying to get around the rules.

Back-to-back ticketing used to be common for frequently flying businessmen when most discount airfares required a weekend stay. A savvy traveler or agent could, instead of booking two Monday to Thursday round trips from Los Angeles to New York, for example, book one trip originating in New York, meaning each trip would satisfy the rules, and thus be a much lower total cost.

“Hidden city” ticketing was also common: booking a ticket, say, from San Francisco to Austin, via Dallas, if the Austin fare was much lower than the Dallas fare. The traveler would then get off the plane in Dallas and save money.

But, as airline computer systems are far better at catching such games, and as increasingly there are one-way fares available in many major markets, use of “back-to-backs” and “hidden-city” tickets have decreased dramatically.

There has, however, been one reasonably safe way to save money on some airline tickets, which is to book a roundtrip and not use the return. While this doesn’t make a difference with many routes, the savings internationally can be substantial. And, in fact, the Washington Post’s June 15 “Travel Talk” column even suggested that a reader wanting to fly to London for a Queen Mary 2 crossing book a roundtrip and not use it, saying, “Most airlines prohibit it in the contract of carriage. But, realistically, the likelihood of the airline coming after you is slim to none.”

Well, maybe. Have I booked this kind of ticket? Yes. Also, even more frequently, I’ve had clients who actually planned to use their return, had plans change, then tossed the original half ticket and book something else because it was cheaper than paying the change fee plus the difference in price.

But a message from our agency head office could mean this option may soon no longer be possible. And that it’s not possible now with British Airways.

The message states that British Airways is “strictly enforcing” its policy of issuing fines when passengers do not fly all ticketed segments. This includes both not taking a connecting flight (that old “hidden-city” trick) and not taking a return flight. So, if an agent issues a roundtrip from the U.S. to London, and the passenger doesn’t use the return, they will be billed for the difference between the ticketed fare and the one- way fare.

And it’s not as if travel agents can disregard these fines. Airlines can send them to collection, and if they deem necessary, forbid an agency from selling their tickets. Which generally means the agent has to pass the bill onto the client.

Presumably, this would apply both to brick and mortar agencies and online agencies. And, if someone books with British Airways directly at their website using a credit card, the airline could try to bill the card after the fact.

What’s potentially even more frustrating is that not all unused tickets are passengers trying to skirt the rules; sometimes stuff happens. And sometimes travelers are shown as no-shows when they actually flew on the plane.

Personally, our agency hasn’t had this situation come up, although British Airways has been quite strict with trivial issues on tickets. And it’s difficult to know if a credit card company would side with a traveler or the airline in such a dispute.

Overall, it’s not a good development for consumers. And if British Airways is doing this, no doubt others will follow.

Yet, what other industry charges you more for not using all of their product?

Should airlines be allowed to charge you for tickets you don’t use?

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  • Ton

    there was a big issue a while ago in the netherlands, klm, the national carrier sold tickets on routes from amsterdam, but would also sell tickets from other european airports though amsterdam onward, and for less money, so people would buy these.

    i led to some nasty stuff, people trying to get out at amsterdam and finding that they were forced to fly on

  • TonyA_says

    Janice, what do you think of the practice called FUEL DUMPING?
    There are thousands of pages in Flyertalk’s trick it thread about it. There is also a video article on it in the economist magazine’s website. The savings on fuel dumped international ticket can be sometimes larger than those from hidden city ones or throwaway ones.

    I think the days of an agent issuing a ticket are numbered. No commission and high risks. But agents can become advisors on how the game is played. Definite career change :-)

  • dcta

    I really struggle with this one – if I am booking round trips where the return is “dumped”, I don’t know about it.

  • dcta

    TonyA – my air bookings are increasing with clients happily paying fees…. I’d rather not issue air tickets, but still….

  • AKFlyer

    What’s next — airline death panels that have to review and approve all excuses (illness, death, earthquakes, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, post 9/11 flying bans, Acts of God) before passengers are off the hook for not using their return ticket?

  • janice

    AKFlyer, no kidding. And what about when someone changes and it’s cheaper to buy a new ticket.

  • John Baker

    Good thing I don’t use a TA any more… they’d probably fire me since I’ve walked away from more tickets than I can count when the change fees exceeded the value. No thanks…

  • TonyA_says

    Maybe we have to make our customers sign some cost recovery clause if they do not use all the coupons?

  • LFH0

    It seems to me that should this ever get before a jury, no juror would find the airline damaged by not having a passenger on board, and would find for the passenger notwithstanding any provision in the contract of carriage to the contrary.

  • dcta

    My clients are already signing a huge waiver what with all the requirements on “disclosure” from the FAA…

  • janice

    john baker, plenty of clients do it (walk away from tickets). So far only british airways is coming after the agencies. And i presume, the travelers who book online. Since they have credit card information. Will be interesting to see how this plays out.

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    How are they going to stop someone from calling in halfway through their trip and cancelling? I’m sick… I have a contagious cold… Surely after forcing one or two people to take their trip and having the passenger walk on the plane announcing: I am contagious but BA made me take this flight… they’d have a PR disaster on their hands!

  • MeanMeosh

    Would I intentionally throw away the return half of a round-trip just to game the fare? Probably not, but I absolutely WOULD no-show if the change fee exceeded the value of the unused portion of the ticket. Frankly, in my view, it’s a cost of doing business that the airlines are going to have to accept if they want to charge obnoxious change fees.

    As for BA – well, if they want to play that game, the next time I fly with them and have to change a segment, I’ll wait until exactly 10 minutes before departure to call and cancel, just so they won’t have time to give the seat to someone else. Oops, I have the flu and just now got up because of the medication.

  • Chris_In_NC

    Locally, we had a sushi restaurant that offered “all you can eat sushi.” The catch was that any pieces that were left over were charged at $1 a piece. I understand this was to minimize waste and situations where the “eyes are bigger than the stomach.” But I had to laugh when I went to use the restroom after our meal and looked in the paper towel disposal and saw dozens of pieces of discarded sushi. My wife saw the same thing in the female bathroom. Needless to say, that restaurant didn’t last very long.
    All of this would be irrelevant if the airlines didn’t take yield management pricing to an extreme. Years ago, when pricing a flight, I remember the OW fare from CLT was $482, but the OW fare to the same destination from GSO was $39. Of course, the flight from GSO connected through CLT. Unfortunately, I had to take the GSO>CLT leg because this was the departure point.
    I may be in the minority but I prefer a fare structure where the price had some relationship to distance flown and peak/non-peak time. But to charge as low as $298 RT from NY to LA and more for flights of less distance is what is illogical to me.
    and yes, the BA move really stinks if they can pull it off.

  • mjhoop

    Since BA is no longer on my list of airlines to fly w/ I don’t have a problem with this. But if VA did it, then I’d have a problem. Guess it all depends on how much I want to fly my rare trip on a particular airline.
    I hear people saying, “If no one bought gasoline for just one week, we could get prices down.” I wish I believed that! And that if everybody sacrificed flying for one week, the airlines would do right by the traveler. But Tinkerbell is just a fiction.