I have until Friday to cough up $14,000 – should I pay?

Given my backlog of cases, it’s unusual to cover something I just heard about a few hours ago. It’s even more unusual to redact the name of both the passenger and the airline.

But as you’ll see in a minute, this is a highly unusual problem with an imminent deadline. At stake? The highest-level elite status and several million frequent flier miles.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal. Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Oh, and the fate of our republic.

I’m kidding.

We have two choices here: pay up or fight. And by fight I mean I’ll go to bat for this customer.

So why no names? Because the airline alleges — and some of you will probably allege, too — that this customer did something he knew he shouldn’t. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It all started with an email from the airline’s “corporate security” department notifying the customer that his frequent flier account had been suspended because of “fictitious bookings.”

It included a spreadsheet outlining about half a dozen reservations in business class that were not real. Rather than explain the problem, I’ll refer you to another case that involved an airline that may or may not be the one we’re discussing today.

The airline notes,

Our investigation indicates that on the dates above, you, or someone acting on your behalf, created the fictitious reservations detailed above for Business Class seats on flights in which you were ticketed in coach class and upgrades were requested.

The creation of these fictitious bookings is a clear violation of the Site Usage and General [Loyalty Program] Conditions provisions.

The Site Usage agreement clearly prohibits the use of the website to book false reservations. In addition, the General Program Conditions prohibit, among other things, fraud, misrepresentation, abuse, or any other violation of the airline’s applicable rules, including but not limited to the conditions of carriage, which specifically prohibit creating bookings to hold or block seats for the purpose of obtaining a seat that may not otherwise be available.

The rules are clear, the letter added. The airline may exercise its right to terminate a passenger’s program membership and confiscate his miles. Unless he accepts a settlement.

You will compensate [the airline] for the aforementioned fictitious bookings in the amount of $14,000 and refrain from making fraudulent bookings going forward.

We value your business and years of loyalty. […] Our offer will remain open until close of business (5PM CST) Friday, November 15, 2013.

Yikes. Now what?

Our passenger searched for past cases and turned up the one I linked to a few paragraphs earlier. He contact me to see if there had been any other cases, and whether they settled. Also, could he donate some miles to charity as penance for his crimes instead of paying the airline?

“Your suggestions are greatly appreciated,” he told me.

Well, as you can imagine, my first question was: didja do it, and if so, was this your first time?

“Yes,” said the passenger. “They have identified the only times that these speculative booking occurred.” The fake reservations were for clients who they believed would join him on a trip and then changed their mind. But, he assures me, he wasn’t trying to game the system.

So should he take the offer or fight?

I’ve reviewed this passenger’s bookings, and if what he says is true, then the airline’s actions seem a little extreme. The airline alleges it lost about $5,000 more than it’s asking for, but that’s really difficult to believe. More likely, it was a missed revenue opportunity, and a highly theoretical one at that. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that all the flights on which these questionable reservations took place were flying completely full.

And I wonder: why not warn this customer before sending a demand letter like this? If his business is so “valuable” then why wait until you have a several bookings and then come after him, demanding a big check?

These are not the actions of a company that appreciates your business.

Some of you will also probably ask, “Well, if you can make a booking like this, and there’s no law against it, then why shouldn’t you try?” That would be a valid question, and I think the fact that any airline has to create complex rules to “protect” its revenues says a lot more about its iffy business model than it does about the inadvertent actions of one customer.

Personally, I would walk away from my elite status and the millions of miles and take my business to an airline that truly cares, as opposed to one that just says it cares. But I also feel to some extent that this passenger is being ambushed by his carrier, and could use a hand.

And yes, I know that I promised not to mediate any more missing miles cases, but the miles haven’t been taken away from him yet, and I’m just asking.

What should this passenger do?

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161 thoughts on “I have until Friday to cough up $14,000 – should I pay?

  1. The $14,000 amount certainly sounds arbitrary and am sure that they might be open to a negotiated settlement. Not sure I understand what the inapprpriate act was here. If he used his own FF# on these reservations, wouldn’t the res need to be in his name? He could not receive FF miles if he never took the flights. If it was a matter of booking reservations that he never payed for within 24 hours, and never cancelled, isn’t that the airline’s fault for allowing this? If this is allowed for certain customers, that is why they overbook – to mitigate damages, so where is the proof of lost revenue and why did they allow this to go on for so long? Was this a scam to enrich himself financially somehow? What am I missing?

    1. I believe the scam involves an originator who has elite status with an airline booking one or more refundable first class tickets on a flight on which he already had booked economy seats. The person then cancels those tickets close to departure time. That increases the likelihood that there are empty first/business class seats since there is little time for the airline to rebook the cancelled seats. Since the person has status with the airline and is likely to be upgraded if a seat is available, this greatly increases his chance at a free upgrade.

      So while there is no direct enrichment or gain of miles, the “scammer” would gain by not having to give up his miles or money to get the better seats on the flights he ran the scam on.

      1. Thanks for this explanation. I think some further information about the passenger’s history would help understand this case. For these flights in question, did the passenger have economy reservations in his name, as per the scam m.o.? If the story is true, it seems you would likely travel in the same cabin as your associates – booking economy for yourself only would be a red flag. Another factor that I think would help prove the case is if this passenger made a habit of booking flights for his associates in Business class – if there are plenty of other bookings where this did actually happen, and only a few cancellations, then the airline should overlook the cancellation cases.

        Somehow I suspect the airline has already done these checks, as they wouldn’t want to seriously annoy someone who is actually buying lots of business class tickets. Thus the only real option is to try to negiotiate the settlement down…

          1. Which is a dead giveaway that he was trying to game the system. If the client was going with you, you’d want to be sitting with them in order to conduct business. I don’t care what the guy does – fights or pays – I just hope you don’t get involved further.

          2. I’m not sure I agree with you, Blackadar. It’s not like you can just whip out the laptop and work materials and spread out when you’re on a plane. In the airport, maybe, but not on the plane. I don’t really see anything wrong with giving clients the nicer seats while you and the partner schlep it in coach.

          3. I often see, and hear, people in 1st class sitting next to each other doing a deal pointing out stuff on their laptop screen and shuffling papers between the two of them. I agree that it is not something I would want to try in coach, but most domestic 1st seat and any of the new lay flat international seats provide plenty of room to work.

          4. Perhaps they were trying to “take care of” the client they were schmoozing but didn’t want to pay for all three of them to sit in first class, so they just treated the client to the good seat? Two economy tickets but only one first class ticket wouldn’t make a lot of sense if you were trying to game an upgrade.

            This might be a little clearer if we knew what class the OP usually flew and whether he made a habit of treating clients to first class tickets.

            Saying they could conduct business on the plane isn’t necessarily true. It depends on the nature of the business. Hard to have a confidential conversation in such close quarters, and perhaps the purpose of the trip involved inspecting a site or asset or meeting with additional people.

          5. Its possible but very unlikely. The client would find that very odd.

            I agree with Mark. Conducting business on plane is commonplace the premium cabins.

          6. This is also the type of person that is responsible in some measure for the draconian measures airlines take with regards to changes, refunds, etc. In trying to protect their revenue against scammers like this, the airlines have to impose rules that affect all of us.

            Strip him of his status and his miles. If it were me, I’d add him to the ‘not welcome on this airline’ list as well.

          7. Oh, that reeks a tad. Why would you not be with your clients? The word ‘only’ also is disturbing in his stating they found the only times he did this. Inclusive words (all, never, only, always, none) generally are red flags. Still if he can ‘find’ emails that would seem to be in good faith that the clients were going and they were being booked, then showing the clients were cancelling unexpectedly, I’d fight the airline since $14k is not a reasonable punishment. Spend $5k to fight it and give up your status and miles in arbitration.

          8. Is that business partner or partner like spouse? And were the flights somewhere you would expect to go for a business meeting or some vacation destination? And did the upgrades occur on these flight or not?

        1. If I was a top tier elite with the airline with a high probability of being upgraded, I’d book myself in coach and my clients in First (who likely did not have the same status), banking on my 90% (without any gaming) upgrade percentages. For years I was a United 1K and 90% was my upgrade percentage. If the 10% happened to strike, it’s not the end of the world.

          The real question that reveals whether he’s telling the truth or lying is whether clients ever did actually fly with him in that scenario, where he booked himself in Coach and his clients in First. If that scenario happened, then he’s probably telling the truth. If he’s never flown with clients in that scenario, then he’s probably lying.

          Of course, I’m not actually a disinterested observer in this scenario. I was a loyal 1K with United for years–my friends called me a fanboy and made fun of me for it–until United’s Corporate Security department pounced on me and shook me down for a few thousand bucks and then closed my account with a million miles in it anyway. In my case, there was malfeasance going on (at least that’s what United says), but it was being done by someone else–I was being scammed as well. United refused to listen despite my offer to take the full financial hit for the supposed scam. I got the impression that they were more interested in getting a million miles of liability off the books rather than actually weighing things in an evenhanded fashion. I was sick and tired of being treated like scum instead of a loyal customer, so I didn’t do much fighting, just moved on. With all of United’s devaluations since, I’m happier and better off for it.

    2. My thought as well is that the creation of additional reservations that may or may not actually be used is in the same category as a carrier overbooking its flights. In both cases the sin may cause economic damage to the other party, either by reducing a carrier’s salable inventory or by causing delay to a passenger involuntarily denied boarding. But it does seem to me that if a carrier does intentionally overbook, and has the expectation that not all reservations will be used, that it should not be surprised that not all of its reservations will actually be used. One solution might be to prohibit carriers from knowing selling transportation in excess of its capacity to transport, and to require passengers to actually purchase any transportation that they reserve. (Of course, the latter part of this “solution” might be illusory if the transportation purchased were fully refundable.)

  2. I said fight it mostly because the penalty is greatly out of sync with the alleged offense.

    I do have a problem with the OP’s credibility. Generally the fictitious bookings are made in a higher class to increase the chance of an upgrade. But if he’s booking for clients who would travel with him then I would assume that they would all travel in the same class. That casts doubt on the OPs veracity.

    On the other hand, the OP is a very sophisticated flier given the number of miles accumulated. Had he intended to make fake bookings, I would expect him to book the flights without including his FF#.

    If this were a legal matter, my advice to the OP would be, can you substantiate your claim? WIll those clients be willing to substantiate your assertion that you they were going on a business trip with you but changed their minds at the last minute. If not, and those millions of miles are important to you, I would tend to believe that you could negotiate a better penalty that $14,000.

    1. The passenger may not have booked the business class tickets using his own FF # – he probably used different passenger names, but the airline’s ‘security’ team was able to track this down based on things like the same credit card number, same billing address, etc. At least that’s my guess unless he’s really naïve.

      1. Lol. Then he should have checked out Flytertalk DOT com a little closer. (See no URLs)
        Actually, I was thinking more like AA which lets you hold a reservation for up to 24 hours (really 48 if you book at 12:01am).

  3. Tell him next time make sure he books a few “fake” reservations on flights he does not have reservation on.

    There is no law against what he did. But it does make me put him in the same category as the airlines who make arguments for bag fees like “some customers don’t travel with bags and don’t want to pay for that in the fare.” Yeah 6 hour flight across the US, who’s not going to have at least one suitcase?!

    Tell the OP pay the “fine” and be smarter next time.

    1. Me. I don’t fly with a suitcase. I visit my parents on Long Island for Thanksgiving (I live in the Los Angeles area). They always have clothes for me so I don’t have to wait for my bags. The only thing I bring is my laptop or my backpack if I don’t need my laptop.

    2. So if the flight is less than 6 hours then no one needs a checked bag? 😉

      I also never fly with checked bags, just a single carry on. Makes life a lot simpler because it cuts out the wait at baggage claim. I do understand that many people have situations where only a carry on is not an option.

  4. Sometimes, you have to fire a customer because they take advantage, aren’t worth the hassle, or are just too much agony to deal with.

    This sounds like one of those situations.

    I doubt our ANON is super-innocent here. “Oh, that client just didn’t fly that day…” Yeah, no. Ain’t buyin’ that.

    But he could just walk away…if the ANON AIRLINE hasn’t blacklisted him to all of their buddies. Do airlines do that? I don’t know, but I do know that when I worked in the hotel industry for a summer, all properties in the area kept a list of “DNR” and floated it around weekly.

    (And I must say keeping everything ANON makes me feel like I’m reading a Tumblr blog rather than a reputable travel site…sheesh. Although, to be fair, for it to truly be Tumblr, there would’ve had to be pr0n. And there is no pr0n…)

    1. I agree; the OP certainly seems to have a suspicious pattern of clients that cancel high-dollar trips at the last minute. Yet, strangely, he still takes the trips himself. Even if it’s NOT nefarious behavior, it’s still a profit-sink and the airline was right to “fire” him.

    2. Blacklists are against FTC regulations, governing using a “report mechanism” to coerce payment on a debt that is being disputed or has been disputed and proved invalid. Google “LeFavre Cass” for more information.

          1. ok. I read the letter. I don’t see how you come to your conclusion about blacklists, unless the specific blacklist owner is considered a consumer reporting agency.

            Also, opinion letters are not law.

          2. No…it simply explains how an alleged creditor (such as an airline) will use a mechanism (such as a blacklist) to coerce payment on a disputed debt (such as the $14K in question here), which can and will be construed as a prohibited act under the FDCPA (which is the law).

            Sure, opinion letters aren’t law. But neither are blacklists. Nor $14K demands. So…what’s your point?

          3. Merely that your statement that blacklist are illegal is not supported by the reference that you cited.

            No legally trained mind could come to that convulsion from that opinion letter.

            If you have a better reference I’m all ears.

  5. Don’t offer your services to thieving sneaks. OP sounds like one of the entitled DYKWIAs that you rail on when discussing airline loyalty programs.

    He doesn’t have a problem; he IS a problem. Let him walk. And who cares if the $14,000 isn’t an exact figure? It’s not just the missed revenue, but the entire departments that the airline sets up and maintains just to weed out scammers like the OP. They have the right to be punitive.

    And oh yes, I’m curious how many other airlines will “care, instead of just say they care” when he tries to pull the same stunt with them.

    1. Perfectly stated. I agree 100% that the OP was trying to game the system, got caught and now wants to say “oops.. can I have a do-over?”

  6. My answer to the poll is “neither”. Let it go.

    I view the airline cutting him off the same as a store that warns a customer they won’t be taking returns from him/her any more because of behavior that looks an awful lot like “renting”. No, it’s not illegal to buy something, use it for a week, and return it, but you aren’t making any money for the company either. Maybe you have a legitimate reason for making all those returns, but it’s still profit-sucking; just like you get to choose what companies you patronize, businesses (within limits) are free to choose their customers.

  7. I’m normally one to question anything and everything an airline does because I firmly believe that they will do anything they are legally allowed to do to screw you out of a buck.
    But in this case, I think that they got it right, or at least appear to.
    $14K may seem like a large number but not when the difference in price between Business Class and Coach is $3K+ Per ticket(Cross Country). And they’ve got 6 recorded instances.
    What I would like to know from the OP:
    1) Can he provide instances where he has booked clients in Business Class with himself in coach where the client actually took the flight? If he had this information, it would further prove his claim that these were unintentional client cancellations, not fraudulent bookings.
    2) Can he provide proof that the clients that cancelled actually initially intended to take the trips in question?

    I also wonder how many other times the OP has tried to pull this stunt unsuccessfully? How many times has he cancelled the ticket only to have the upgrade go to someone else?
    For those of you legal people out there I’ve got a question.
    If the OP was using his client’s information to book flights without their knowledge, and then cancelling the flights for his own personal gain, would the clients have some sort of recourse against him? Could this constitute some sort of ID Theft or defamation of character?
    Did the OP actually send you the spreadsheet that the airlines sent him? Does it have the names that the Business Class tickets were cancelled under? If so, are they all different or the same?

    1. My guess, and its only a guess. Did he use private information (e.g. birthdate, age, etc)? If so then perhaps. If he just used a name without anything else linking to his client then probably not.

  8. Chris… If you won’t assist people in fat-fingered fares, why would you in this case? In the case of fat- fingered fares, some innocent people get wrapped up in it almost always. In this case, it pretty obvious that the OP tried to game the system and got caught. If you do the math, the airline is basically asking the OP to pay for each of those tickets that he had no intention of using and, through his actions, prevented the airlines from selling to someone else (approx $2333 a tix).

    Sadly, creating something to find this type of behavior isn’t that hard. I’m sure that full-fare business tickets aren’t cancelled all that often an a simple db search would be able to find the number of common occurrences with the OP. Quite a few eCommerce platforms (and Disqus by the way) capture the purchaser’s ip address during the sale. Even with different CCs and not using his FF# you could link it back to common ip addresses. It gets even easier if the OP was booking a connecting ticket on both the economy and fake ticket. The common itinerary would really standout.

    Chris walk away… As far as the OP, I don’t care. Pay your fine or walk away. The OP earned either the fine or losing his miles.

  9. You should leave this one alone. I would suspect that this was not the first communication that he received, just the first one that he shared with you.

    As soon as I saw this line

    “They have identified the only times that these speculative booking occurred.”

    I read it as “the only time they caught me”.

    Why would you risk your reputation on defending someone that tried to game the system? Would this airline take you seriously in the future?

  10. The article mentions a third option that was not in the poll question: just walk away from that airline and his program miles. The OP is clearly one of those loyalty nerds who makes international trips to nowhere just for the miles. Though making fake bookings to get upgrades can be an irresistible challenge for such people, very sophisticated software is now available to detect the practice. If he really wants to stay in that particular loyalty program, he might be able to bargain the penalty down, but I bet that $14,000 would buy a lot of flights to nowhere on some other airline.

  11. Not being privy to the OPs business or how he does things, his story IS plausible. I don’t know if he’s telling the truth or not but business plans change all the time, which is why Southwest is so popular with the business travel crowd.

    I’d be curious to know if he even GOT the free upgrades to business class, not that it’s relevant and it’s just me going off on a tangent.

    But I’ve flown with people on press trips and sat in different places on the plane than they. You sit where you sit because a plane isn’t the most conducive place to conduct business. It’s noisy, it’s crowded, there’s no place to put your work product.

    I hate “doing business” on a plane for these reasons, and I’m sure the OP feels the same way.

    1. Doing business in first class in adjoining seats is pretty easy and convenient. The background noise can create an almost private environment. The captive nature of the airplane means you have the almost undivided attention of the other party. The proximity means you can share computer screens easily to communicate.

      All in all, doing business in first class has distinct advantages. I would much rather do business face to face in an airplane than in settings with far more distractions, and/or by email and telephone.

      1. +1

        First class is neither noisy nor crowded. Business folks pay a premium for first class for, among other things, the ability to do work.

  12. These types of bookings cost the airline money – real money not just speculative revenue generated IF they sell the seats. How? Each credit card transaction costs the airline a percentage of the total price paid when the transaction is booked and then again when it is cancelled. Let’s say the airline gets a great rate because of the high volume of business so they pay only 2% of the total charged per transaction. On a typical fully refundable business class seat, which can run at least couple thousand dollars, that would be around $40. The same fee is charged for the return as well. This means each reservation the OP made and then cancelled cost the airline approximately $80. So they, as any merchant paying these credit card fees should be, are upset because this type of action cuts into their profits without gaining them any benefit.

    It is true that there is no law against booking seats and then canceling them to improve your chances of getting an upgrade, but the rules of the frequent flyer program prohibit it. Unless the OP can provide documentation supporting his claim, he got caught gaming the system. Pay up or move on.

    1. Your facts are incorrect. The credit card % fees are refunded to the merchant when the credit card charge is reversed. There is still a small per transaction fee that remains, but that’s peanuts compared to the % fee.

      ETA: Here’s a good explanation. If your merchant bank is keeping the credit card fees when you issue a refund, you’re a very poor businessperson. As a travel agent and industry expert, I can assure you that the airlines have contracts negotiated with the banks that properly refund the interchange fees on returns. http://www.practicalecommerce.com/articles/4107-Beware-Credit-Card-Processing-Fees-Especially-Refunds

      1. Actually that’s not correct. I did financial system consulting for over 10 years, all related to A/R systems, and all involving merchant processing. I have yet to see a merchant agreement where the fees were not charged again on the reversal, meaning the client paid the fee when the charge was processed, and an additional fee when the charge was refunded. In some cases for smaller business, such as those using PayPal or an iPad payment processor for low volume I have seen agreements where the fee is reversed, but for large business I have never seen one where the fee is reversed and I have seen hundreds of such agreements all over the country.

        1. @emanon256:disqus Mine are partially reversed on a refund (I don’t get everything back) so there is some expense but not double

          1. Yeah, like the article I linked noted, some bad negotiators don’t get the full interchange fees refunded, but the double charging is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard of.

          2. I was just pointing out that it does cost the airline actual money when this type of ticketing is done. I agree that it makes sense to refund the interchange because no actual product was provided by the merchant in the case of a refunded item. But I was also pointing out what I see for the average credit card merchant and how several ISOs handle this.

          3. I don’t do the negotiating myself, but with the business I work with, they generally have $500M in sales per year, so not huge, but not small. They have all had agreements where the fee is charge on the sale, and an additional fee on the return across the board. Perhaps they get other perks somewhere else for negotiating this way, I just implement their internal system, and interface in the fees credits and charges.

    2. Ok. but $80 hardly compares to $14,000. I suspect if the airline offered to forgive him if he paid the CC %, this case would have been resolved a long time ago.

      1. But that would not be enough for the airline because they are convinced that there was a line of people waiting to pay walk up full fare for those seats that were held and then cancelled, hence the $14K demand. In reality, the airline would probably have given most of those seats to frequent flyers anyway at minimal income if any.

        This also follows the structure all penalty fees that airlines charge – the fee is set at a level to discourage customers from incurring those fees. Everyone who reads this story who ever thought of trying something like this will at least think twice before trying it it not be discouraged completely from doing it.

        So in other words, the OP ticked off the airline so they are seeking revenge. 🙂

        1. These are BUSINESS class seats – no walk up fare – same fare whenever – but very FEW of these seats, and what he did is prohibited by the FF program.

          1. But if I book business/1st on UA a month in advance I can usually get a seat on a domestic flight where I want to go for around $800 if not less. If I wait until the day before, it is $1500. Isn’t this the same as a walk up?

            Not refundable fares here. Those might be static in price, but I don’t look for those.

          2. That’s what I’m referring to here – the fully refundable fares (which he is booking and holding), knowing full well he will cancel and get the upgrade if available. Skeezie

          3. Of course, we would never do something like that for him, knowing we’d get our butts in a sling in the wake of them finding out. 🙂

        2. 😉

          They’re sending a message to other’s who might break their rules. The OP is doing exactly what they want. They are thrilled that this is being published.

          The airlines real position is if anyone else is thinking of doing this, “You have been warned”

  13. The OP ran a scam in my humble opinion & got caught, & now the airline is meting out punishment. End of story. Best stay out of it & let him try & negotiate a lesser penalty.
    It would seem to me by cancelling the Business Class seat(s) at the last minute either was meant to accrue illegal miles, OR as a frequent flyer try & get upgraded knowing the seats were available.

    1. He wouldn’t have accrued miles for the fake booking regardless. To get miles the ticket must be in your name and the flight actually taken.

      1. Agreed, my point is, he was I believe, scamming. Don’t expect Chris to help if his hands are dirty. While the penalty may be excessive, let him straighten his mess on his own.

        1. That’s where attorneys disagree. People screw up all the time, whether purposely or accidentally. They are still entitled to an advocate to protect their rights and interests, and should not be railroaded.

          In this case, I believe that a fine of $14,000 is grossly excessive, unless the airplane actually lost money. If the airline didn’t lose money, a smaller “mea culpa” is appropriate.

          The obvious solution would be to forfeit the miles equal to the award cost of the business class seat or seats that he improperly booked.

  14. Scammers scamming each other. Both the LW and the airline are guilty. Neither deserve help or support. This is the grown up world where there are consequences for poor behavior. You made this mess- you clean it up.

  15. Ugh, I say you walk away. Not saying he is scamming or not, but it sure sound like it. FlyerTalk has all sorts of instructions on how to book a certain class, request an upgrade at a certain time, book a refundable seat in the upgraded cabin to block your favorite seat, and then within 24 hours cancel you reservations and reverse/re-request you upgrade to bypass the waitlist, etc. They even say if caught to just say that you booked it for a college who couldn’t make it. Makes me sick. Did the OP actually fly in the same seat he reserved and then canceled? If so, I think he is pulling a scam and you shouldn’t help him at all. Very sad that people do stuff like this. Even worse that they ask a consumer advocate for help when they get caught.

    1. That’s an inaccurate picture. The few times that that kind of thing is posted on FT, it’s quickly shouted down by a chorus of voices explaining why that’s a bad idea.

    1. How so? I was a business travel for a long time, and while I don’t think they are consumer friendly, I dont think they screw us over either. Just because they keep adding fees and such, doesn’t justify the OP stealing $19,000 worth of services from the airline. I refuse to believe that two wrongs don’t make a right. However three lefts do.

  16. We need to ask the question, has the airline committed similar acts in the course of its daily business? If the airline is indeed American Airlines, it has. Back in the late 1970’s Braniff Airlines decided to abandon their Kansas City hub and go into competition with AA at DFW. Braniff, like many other carriers, contracted to use the Sabre Computer System to provide a way for travel agents and their own reservations people to keep track of and sell available seat inventory. AA was the sole owner of the Sabre system. (I guess that Sabre’s customers never dreamed that AA would use the system as a weapon).

    Angered by Braniff’s move into DFW, AA decided to wage war on them by manipulating computer records to show many of Braniff’s flights as full where, in reality, only a handful of seats had been sold. Planes were taking off with less than 10% of their seats occupied. Within a few months, Braniff went belly-up and AA was able to go back to charging high fares for itineraries originating from or terminating at DFW. All of this was documented in a book called “Flying Colors” written by John J. Nance.

    The “fraud” allegedly created by the OP appears to be minuscule compared to the crimes of AA.

    1. The infamous “two wrongs make a right” defense. Nice pitch for the book and its claims by the way (which go well beyond a conspiracy about AA) but you got the name wrong…

    2. As John Baker pointed out, I did make a mistake on the title of the book, It is “Splash of Colors” by John Nance and was published by William Morrow and Co. in 1984. I’m not trying to get anyone to purchase the book since it was published almost 30 years ago and is probably not readily available. I just mentioned the book to document the facts that I posted about AA in my original message.

  17. This practice does indeed cost the airlines millions of dollars in revenue. Please do not get involved. I have seen people book fully refundable tickets, block specific seats, cancel 1 hour before flight time, get their refund, then have the empty seat available beside their non-refundable assigned seat. This is fraud at the highest level. The airlines are bad, but Mr /Ms ???? is worse. The airline is well within it’s rights to cancel the account, and ask for compensation. Lost first class seats, booked in order to be assured space for upgrades or people willing to pay the full ride. This should be considered fraud.

    I reviewed the American case of several years ago that was referenced above. What became of the case? I vote for AA.

    The actions of such “frequent” travelers are what cause the rest of us the abide by the rules, to suffer the damnation from the airlines.

    1. I’m going to jump in the mosh pit and address this opinion (so far, apparently 5 agree and 2 disagree) which I regard as hyperbole. “This is fraud at the highest level.” Come on. Really? Fraud at the highest level? It’s not like selling forged stock certificates to old ladies? Or identity theft?

      Several travel blogs recommend “holding” seats for 24 hours to shop around for a better fare due to a new law that says that passengers get a free hold for that time period. Unethical but not “fraud at the highest level.” The whole point of the business class refundable seats costing a fortune is that the customer pays for that kind of flexibility. The only element of “fraud” in this case would be booking “fictitious” travel for someone else but I doubt there’s a law against that (haven’t seen that Carver has indicated that such a practice can constitute fraud.) If there was, I would expect a disclaimer at the time of booking that indicated you were booking a flight for a third party with their consent.

      If that was the case, that he was actually booking for another person and not gaming the system, he could offer the airline affidavits of such behavior and then Elliott should get involved. If not, then he’s breaking POLICY and annoying the airline and they have a right to cancel his mileage account under their one-sided terms of agreement for the program. A blacklist is another matter since, and I’m interested in Carver’s opinion on this, that would constitute possible slander if he was possibly engaged in innocent behavior.

      In any case, gaming the system is nothing new in travel and there are numerous blogs about “mileage runs” or “mistake fares” and booking round trip travel and then not using the return leg. Many of these practices are harmless and not even unethical.

        1. The world has come to an end. Carver and I agree.

          In the case of this “contract”, it appears that Frequent Flier programs are full of F-you provisions that state the airline can void the value of the miles at anytime or just kick someone out of the program if they feel like it.

          THAT said, however, I just read a news article on google that a European court found that miles are like currency and therefore program holders have some protections. It was a recent decision but it will probably snake its way to the USA via Alliance programs.

  18. He is playing the game, I don’t see a problem with that at all, from a legal standpoint (morally, yes). The airlines do this all the time to us. He isn’t scamming anyone he is using the system. If this is a huge issue the airlines need to come up with a way to stop it. I am not sure he has any recourse though, because don’t the airlines technically own the miles he has obtained so they can do anything they want with them?

    1. The airlines do have a way to stop it – put in the T&Cs of their frequent flier programs to terminate anyone’s account who violates it. Then monitor closely and seize the miles of violators. Looks like they caught one 🙂

      1. Another way would be to stop giving away upgrades like crazy unless needed (oversold flight in coach, for example), like most airlines do in the rest of the world. Then, nothing to game for !…

        1. You don’t throw he baby out with the bath water. Giving away upgrades is a great way to make high value customers pick your airline over others.

          1. I’m not.
            In my part of the world, first or business class product is something that people are buying, not something that is given away. If the high value customer wants to sit in first class, let him pay for it with a good pricing (i.e. one where the airline gain more and the customer is willingly paying the difference) instead of asking him to pay for a coach ticket and be grumpy that he didn’t score an upgrade. If not, with all the planes flying at full capacity and none of your customers paying for first class but all expecting to be given it for (almost) free, why not remove the seats and put more people in the airplane at coach fares ?

          2. Cool. But we’re talking about the US primarily. Different demographics and circumstances will drastically alter the financial landscape for any business.

            Obviously domestic airlines, much like hotels and car rental companies have found that this business model works best in maximizing revenue from their customers. If domestic airlines believed that they could sell all of the premium class seats for straight cash they wouldn’t have upgrades. But apparently they have found that that doesn’t work.

            I’m not sure about the giving away for almost free issue. Using American as an example, they charge $30 per 500 miles on top of the regular trip. A transcontinental will add an extra $600 to the round trip ticket.

            I am sure that carriers have legions of Harvard MBAs working through the various revenue scenarios to determine what makes the most sense from the airlines perspective.

          3. The only relevant question to the airlines is maximizing revenue. I’m sure that the airlines all have legions of Harvard and Stanford MBAs reviewing each revenue generating option. If your suggestion was viable in the US it would be in general implementation by other than Southwest, which has neither a first class nor international travel.

            Even with upgrades, only top tiered frequent fliers get the premium domestic cabin for free. Everyone else pays a non-trivial upgrade charge. On AA for example, a round trip transcon adds $600 to the fare. Most of the upgraded passengers have paid a good money to get into first.

            But the major point is to incentivize the high value business customer to choose your airline. Upgrades, especially for people who purchased high fares anyway work well. (Especially if the company refuses to pay for First, even if its $10 more than coach)

  19. I guess I’m either too stupid or to honest to figure out how to game the system this way, but my gut reaction, Chris, is don’t mediate. First of all the risk that the OP is in fact playing fast and loose is too high. Second, do you really want to waste the goodwill you have with your contacts in the industry on someone like this? Mama always said, “If you lay down with dogs, you’re likely to get fleas and the dogs don’t get any cleaner.”

    1. I was thinking the same thing – didn’t know this was a way folks try to game the system. Thought I was too old to learn any new tricks.

  20. Christopher:

    This passenger’s case seems to be fishy to me from the beginning. It seems that the company found it too and then decided to charge the passenger a compensation. Essentially, he would have been caught in the act! Whether this is a fair compensation or not this is another story.

    My natural suggestion to you would then be to walk away.

    However, you try to be fair to both sides and you try to stick to the truth. In this case, I would go on and check what is really going on to clearly pinpoint the situation.



  21. The burden is on the airline to prove that the terms of the agreement were breached. The passenger is willing to swear under penalty of perjury that he did not breach the agreement. (Presumably, the clients who backed out of the trip are likewise willing to swear that the bookings were legitimate.) If those are the facts, the airline will have to back down, and may even apologize for its hasty accusation.

    1. Unfortunately, that’s not correct. The T&C make the miles the property of the airline. Thus, as long as they can make even a minimallycredible case, they win.

  22. If this person was doing what Peter said he was doing, then he deserves what’s coming to him. And believe me, I’m no airline apologist.

  23. As I’ve taught my children, life is not fair. Those who play by the rules pay for the sins of those who don’t. This is an unwinnable situation and the person involved should deal with it by himself. There are lots of comments to this story who have offered suggestions as to how he can resolve the issue.

  24. How about he mention, to the airline, all the money passengers lost by way of delays, cancellations and ridiculous fees? And that if you’re late for your flight, they can be quite unforgiving – but when THEY’RE late for their flight, they expect you to put up and shut up? Oh, and all the false and misleading information on flight disruptions?

    Thank you.

  25. I usually like the polls questions for the fun they represent, but this one seemed way too serious and none of the option was appealing to me, so I passed !…

    What worries me is that he could even be considering paying the “fine” to protect miles that he seems to have no use for !

    1. Why do you say he has no use for these miles?

      As far as paying, it’ just economics. The OP says he has millions of miles. That sounds like 3+ million miles. That many miles could be redeemed for tens of thousands of miles of “free” travel. If a first class European trip costs 100,000 miles or $8,000, 3 million miles translates into a quarter million dollars of travel that is at risk of forfeiture.
      Now that I’m doing the math is OP is incredibly stupid. Burn a few miles to upgrade legitimately.

      1. Exactly : why accumulate all this “cash equivalent” in a currency that can be devaluated at any time ?
        Hence my comment that he seems to have no use for the miles anyway, as so many are way over any reward that he could have been saving for …

        1. Well, we know that’s not true, otherwise the OP wouldn’t be considering paying 14K to keep miles that it ” seems to have no use for…”. So the question is what is the OP planning on doing with all those miles?

          so many are way over any reward that he could have been saving

          I can’t speak specifically for the OP, but we can speculate. Let’s say he has a wife and 2 children and flies American Airlines. An international first class award runs as high as 160,000 miles per person. That’s 640,00 miles. Now, let’s say he wants to stay at an amazing hotel while he’s there. He can use his miles to pay for a hotel. Some hotels run as high as 250,000 miles per night. Two room equals 500k miles. So my hypothetical “dream trip” would eat up 3 million miles in one family trip lasting 4 days.
          There are any number of likely scenarios for that many miles. Personally, if I had that many miles, I would do a round the world trip (330K miles for First class), using miles to pay for world class hotels at each destination

        2. Oh, you can believe he’s saving up for a reward. Forget the silly 30k coach ticket. Frequent fliers with those kind of miles have much loftier aspirations.

          My guess is a combination of international travel First class combined with using miles to book world class hotels. The ones that cost $1000+ per night. I used to fly American. I’ve seen hotels cost as much as 250,000 miles per night.

          On American, a one week trip to London for the OP and wife could run as high as 500,000 miles for the airfare, and another 1,750,000 miles for the hotel. Two such trips and the OP had exhausted all of his miles.

          That’s why the OP is accumulating all of those miles and that’s why he’s willing to pay 14k to save them. My hypothetical 2 trips costs way more than 14k. Of course, I don’t know the OP’ specifics but these miles are of critical use to him

          1. So, although we might not agree on the why, we agree on the conclusion that he is incredibly stupid (or mean, which in this case might be almost the same) :
            – he’s saving in a currency that is notoriously unsafe
            – he gets caught playing games with the rules instead of getting his upgrades fair and square
            – instead of paying or negotiating quietly the fine (which although steep might make economical sense if as you suggest he has a plan for the miles), he goes public and makes sure that the airline can’t afford to loose !…

    2. I think you read a little too much into it, ChBot. He said “…could he donate some miles to charity as penance for his crimes instead of paying the airline?” He has several million, as stated in the story. If you had several million miles (perhaps banking them for retirement travel), the thought of coughing up a few hundred thousand or even a million probably looks pretty enticing next to a $14,000 alternative.

      Even still, my guess is the whole charity suggestion is a ruse to get the airline, or even Christopher, to blink and look at his case again.

      1. I can find of better investment plans for retirement travel than an airline frequent flyer “funny money” with its constant devaluation risk !

  26. Any action by an airline, intentional or otherwise, which deprives a passenger of potential income is not ever considered in any form of compensation that the airline offers. Strand me on another continent for a couple of days and cause lost wages? Too bad. The airlines have teams of very capable lawyers drafting contracts of carriage that absolve them of responsibility, even if, say, they moved equipment to a more profitable route. They can explicitly make choices that enrich themselves while causing financial harm to their passengers, and that’s fine. Why is the same behavior suddenly actionable when it goes the other way? Even if the passenger was deliberately increasing his or her chances of getting a free upgrade in direct contravention of the airline’s FF policy, it doesn’t seem like they should be able to do anything beyond cancelling the passenger’s FF membership. Demanding $14,000, or else (what?), seems hypocritical.

    1. “…it doesn’t seem like they should be able to do anything beyond cancelling the passenger’s FF membership”

      That’s what they’re doing. He has the option of keeping it open for 14K.

  27. “… and take my business to an airline that truly cares.”

    Funniest thing you’ve written in quite some time, Chris. Where might this fictitious airline reside?

  28. I’m wondering if perhaps the ability to cancel easily via some sort of internet access has made this easier. Back when cancelling a ticket was a slow process and you needed to cancel via the phone or a travel agent, who was really tempted to do this kind of thing? I realize one could cancel at the ticket counter, but doing that would be very suspicious when they notice the same person in line. These days you do it by smartphone and the airline only has a vague idea where you are.

    That being said, I’m guessing the use of technology is probably what caused suspicion with the airline. They log IP addresses, and I’m guessing the accused might very well have canceled from the same machine used to book different tickets and/or request the upgrade. At the very least I’m thinking a lot of people don’t quite understand that the airlines will log what machines are used, and using the same internet access will give the airlines a trail to follow.

      1. Almost every client I worked with logged IP address on all payment transactions. No one ever used them, but the lawyers always said we need to just in case the payer reverses the payment and we need to sue them, we can use it as proof that they initiated the transaction. Ive never actually had to use the IP.

          1. Carver … You’d be surprised what high e-marketing systems can track. In short, don’t ever assume Big Brother isn’t watching and tracking your every move on a website unless you completely disable your cookies.

          2. John,
            Cookies are a piece of the puzzle. If you truly want anonymity, then you’re going to need to spoof your IP (proxy, vpn, etc) among other tactic.

            Denying cookies doesn’t do squat, since your IP is logged.

          3. The cost of data storage is quite low these days. If you’ve ever seen internet page view statistics, it should be apparent that it’s easy. They usually only display the “big picture”, but in order to do that they need to know the exact IP address being used for page views. Individual IP addresses are easy to log or at least use. I remember some message boards where individual people were blocked via IP addresses or at blocks of IP addresses.

          4. This is more than just browsing fares. He allegedly made several ficticious bookings on Biz/First using the airline’s 24Hour Free Hold policy.
            Since you don’t need to pay to hold, and there isn’t much other information left to track, then why not use IP Address to track multiple bookings and cancellations?

          5. Of course. We were talking about logging IP addresses in general. Emanom explained to me that , for his clients at least, the logging only happens during payment transactions, not necessarily whenever someone browses a site

        1. So then if the OP had used a proxy, then what?

          IP address can prove it happened from the office (sort of), but not the responsible party. Presumably, John Doe at 134 Fake Street is tied to IP address However, no one knows if John Doe or his associate were the acting parties. IP addresses aren’t psychic.

          Of course, IP address is a piece of the puzzle and is easily faked or spoof. A proxy can put John Doe in Africa, Russia, Asia. A person could log into John Doe’s pc and commit a crime.

          More likely, John Doe or his associate were responsible. So I’m guessing not enough to prove criminally, civil court (if laws prohibited) might be less forgiving. According to Chris, it’s not a crime, so I guess we’re left with Mano El Mano battle.

          1. I understand the possibility of using a proxy or spoofed IP address to mask the source. However, not everyone understands this. The other thing about something like this is how many credit cards and in what name(s)? I’m thinking the biggest clue is the use of credit cards. The possibility of credit fraud did enter my mind. However, I was also thinking that maybe people gaming the system might be using prepaid debit cards.

      2. I’m a web geek and we log everything for a variety of purposes including fraud, hackers, performance, and customer service. Much of it is helpful such as if a customer logged in to a website and then later called customer service, it can be used to determine that he had an issue with the website even if he didn’t mention it to customer service. If only the Obamacare website was so well written…

        That said, one form of “fraud” they’re really into busting on lately are foreign addresses. The airlines sometimes give better privileges to those NOT living in the USA so some people have set up addresses overseas and the airlines do statistical analysis on their travel to try to determine their “true” home address. (Not too difficult to fool if you are not a SOLE flyer of an airline and can hide your total travel activity.)

  29. He can forfeit miles or money because he broke the rules. He’s already expressed a willingness to give the miles to a charity, so how many miles are we talking about? (probably not enough to hit him where it hurts)

  30. I suspect the OP must have use the tactics repeatedly in a short period to attract attention and the wrath of the Airlines. I don’t think AA make a fuss with the first or once a year offence.

  31. When looking at flights I can set a reservation aside for payment within 24 hours. I cannot upgrade it until the ticket is paid in full. So if the ticket was purchased what did he do with the ticket? Plus upgrades are not immediate unless done at the gate so again what happened so he could upgrade at the time of purchase? I have read this case and the other linked but fail to see how the system described will cause airlines to have an empty seat or loose a sale.

    1. The economy seats he bought were paid in full. The 1st class seats he bought were refundable and likely paid in full. So he probably canceled the business class tickets and upgraded at the counter. Whether he did this with premeditation or truly booked on behalf of “customers” I can’t say.

      I get what this does. Lock up the business class seats so they can’t be purchased to save for yourself to get a potential upgrade later. At that late time they’re not likely to get someone to pay for business class and they’re probably still out the potential economy seat.

      1. I understand what you are saying. Perhaps his level of points differs than mine which is AA Platinum. To get an assured up grade I must request it at least two weeks or a month for it to happen. Otherwise I am stuck at the gate begging.

        If he bought fully refundable tickets and cancelled how can the airline determine he did this to have an empty seat in which ever class… He did use different names on the fully paid tickets. The airline might have the right to deny any upgrade from coach.

        Chris should have a talk with the airline plus I would have my attorney badger the airline. Perhaps a suit in small claims court and a complaint to ICC, FAA, etc. would be even more appropriate. Consider the amount of business the complainant does with this airline, the airline is cutting off it’s nose to spite it’s face.

        1. For those willing to game the system, I think the basic premise is already that begging for the upgrade at the counter doesn’t always yield results, but that using a refundable fare to hold the 1st/business class seats vastly improves the odds. And I’m guessing he’s Executive Platinum.

        2. A couple points

          A seat on AA can be upgraded even if not paid. I’ve routinely had seats on hold and gotten them upgraded before paying.
          As a litigation attorney I would decline this case. The circumstantial evidence points overwhelming against the OP

  32. What is the value of “the highest-level elite status and several million frequent flier miles”? If it is worth more than $14K then fight it but be prepared to pay. If it is less than $14K then fight it but prepared to walk away.

  33. This “upgrade” scam happens constantly, and I’m glad to see the airlines doing something about it.
    All businesses are hoping to operate profitably.

  34. Chris – Mediate. Mediate Away!

    First, why do I envision Airline Representatives hanging a Proverbial Dartboard with fictitious amounts and collection dates. Pay (1,000, 5000, 10,000 etc) by X date (Today, Tomorrow, Forgive Bill, etc). Throws Darts.

    Airlines continue to game customers on a daily basis, so very little sympathy for Airlines falling victim to savvy customers reciprocating. If airlines disapprove, change the law. Until the law is changed, suck it up!

    Customers have bit the bullet on taxes, luggage fees, seating assignment fees, etc. Airlines need to bite the bullet here.

  35. This part of the case description called my attention:

    “Also, could he donate some miles to charity as penance for his crimes instead of paying the airline?”

    The guy knows he was wrong. If Chris’d like to help him, OK (I checked all links Chris posted regarding his old similar cases, and in one or two of them the airline negotiated the fine and accepted miles instead of money.) , but as others pointed, he was playing the system – something not so different of fat finger cases, something Chris seems to abominate.

    1. There’s many was to game the system. This guy seems to take it to the level of using a consumer advocate to get out of his predicament. Looks like this is all about greed and stupidity. Move on.

    1. They’ve got him over a barrel. They can drop his frequent flier status and miles at will. While I think the airline would have a hard time trying to collect in court (under what grounds?) I also think the airline has the leverage in the form of dropping the status and any accrued miles.

  36. Carver, There must be different rules for different travelers. I have never been able to upgrade until tickets are paid in full and then wait until the magic computer says yes. That can take from several days to weeks. If the ticket is fully refundable then cancel that ticket does not make sense. Lot of trouble for something they would probably get anyway. Might get lucky when walking up to a gate and grovel for upgrade but that rarely works.

    1. I have never experience this either. Neither for myself or for clients. Usually you have to have the ticket that you are going to upgrade issued. I have always had to have the carrier see the ticket number in the SSR field. Then the carrier takes the miles out of your account and moves you up and releases the first ticket space back into inventory.

    2. No, I doubt that. But I’m 99% sure we are talking about two different things. I’m talking about the American Airlines segment upgrades, the ones that cost about $30 per 500 miles flown. I think you are thinking about mileage upgrades, which are a different animal. I think you mentioned that you are platinum. Platinum segment upgrades occur at T-72 hours. So, if you are booking a flight more than 96 hours (4 days) in the future, you will have had to pay for your ticket before the upgrade can be processed.

      On innumerable trips, I have held a seat and the upgrade cleared prior to paying for the ticket.

  37. Carver when I decide on a trip when I purchase a ticket I immediately request upgrades. The upgrade cost on my last trip to Ireland was 25,000 points plus a service charge of $350. Took about days from me sending the request until I was assigned the sear.

    1. Sure, but we have to be talking apples and apples, not oranges. This only applies to AA.

      American has three types of standard upgrades. Segments, miles, e-vips. Segment upgrades are available on domestic travel on AA metal only, and do not require that the ticket is actually purchased before they can be applied. They don’t even require that you have enough segments in your account. They can be purchased at check-in. More than once the kiosk has required that I purchase 1 or more segments on flights that I have already been upgraded on ($30 at the kiosk, $35 from the ticket agent)

      Segment upgrades clear at T-100, T-72, and T-24 hours depending on your frequent flier status. They are not available for AA members without elite status.

      Miles are available on most domestic and international itineraries including code-shares, and require the miles are currently available and the ticket is actually purchased. That’s the upgrade vehicle that you employed on your ticket to Ireland.

      E-vips (aka systemwide upgrades) are only available on AA metal, but can be applied to any itineraries, and most cash fare codes. They are the hardest to obtain and the most coveted, in part because they are extremely difficult to obtain and do not require a co-pay. ( At least when I was a road warrior). 8 one-way system wide upgrades are given upon becoming an Executive Platinum. I do miss those days. *sigh* I bought a RT ticket for $428 to England and flew in business class.

      I hope that clarifies what I was talking about. It’s only segment upgrades which can be applied while a ticket is on hold.

  38. He should pay. What he did was dishonest. Of course many of us have thought about doing the same but it’s not the right thing to do.

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