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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