Q: Many of our corporate clients now use one of the online booking tools that our agency offers. Most of the time, we have no phone, email or in-person contact with the traveler making the online booking. Although we review the reservation request for quality and consistency before we issue the ticket, we rarely have any way of knowing whether the traveler is engaging in hidden-city or back-to-back ticketing, which all the major carriers prohibit. Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves from debit memos for these practices? Also, if a client asks our agent to make a reservation using what the agent knows to be a hidden city, how can we prove that there could be adverse consequences for us?
There are a few scenarios where it should be obvious that the client is engaging in these prohibited practices, such as when the hotel is in a connecting city instead of the ticket's destination. Most of the time, however, there is no way of knowing what the client is going to do and no way to prevent the client from violating the rules.
With online booking by employees of corporate accounts, you are especially vulnerable because you do not know the travelers, business flyer blogs are full of tips for saving money by hidden-city and back-to-back tickets, and frequent business flyers may have gotten away with these practices and are willing to repeat them.
Your best defense is to add a clause to your standard corporate-account agreement stating that the corporation will indemnify your agency against debit memos for reservations and ticketing rule violations such as hidden-city and back-to-back ticketing. You may have to explain these concepts to the corporation's procurement manager, but in my experience, the account will almost always accept such a clause and will even agree to add it to its own standard-form contract that the corporation may require you to sign.
If a skeptical traveler asks for written proof that these practices are prohibited, tell him to look up "Airline booking ploys" on Wikipedia, which has an excellent article that even mentions the airline's right to "bill travel agents for the fare difference." If the client asks for a primary source, you can send him the following quotation from Delta's contract of carriage:
"Delta specifically prohibits the practices commonly known as: A) Back to Back Ticketing -- The issuance, purchase or usage of flight coupons from two or more tickets issued at roundtrip fares, or the combination of two or more roundtrip fares end to end on the same ticket for the purpose of circumventing minimum stay requirements. B) Throwaway Ticketing -- The issuance, purchase or usage of roundtrip fares for one-way travel. C) Hidden City/Point Beyond Ticketing -- The issuance, purchase or usage of a fare from a point before the passenger's actual origin or to a point beyond the passenger's actual destination."
If the client wants written proof that the airline might penalize your agency, show him this paragraph from United's agency website: "United strictly prohibits, and will hold travel service provider responsible for any losses due to ... back-to-back ticketing ... and any other prohibited practices outlined in the contract of carriage."
Finally, feel free to clip this column and show it to the doubting traveler. Mark Pestronk is a Washington-based lawyer specializing in travel law. To submit a question for Legal Briefs, email him at email@example.com.