ackie Ceren will tell you that she has
been a travel agent practically all of her life. And she's not
kidding. Ceren first walked into her mother's agency when she was
just 9 years old.
"I used to go to work with my mother," Ceren said. "So, I have
grown up in this business."
And Ceren can tell you stories about how the recession in the
1980s impacted her mother's agency, and how a fire at a telephone
switching center left the agency without phone service and computer
connectivity for weeks.
But now, at age 40, this wife, mother of two children and
veteran travel agent has taken on a new challenge.
In addition to working six days a week, Ceren is going to law
school at night with the intention of specializing in travel
Now, that would be inspiring enough, until you understand how
she got to this point.
About six years ago, long before travel agent Sarah Hall
launched her class-action suit against the major airlines, there
was another agent making headlines for taking on the carriers. She
also captivated the media with a warning that today almost seems
Her name was Barbara Pisa. She ran an agency based in
Naperville, Ill., called Classic Travel.
Pisa contended that debit memos related to stolen ticket stock
were costing already victimized agencies millions of dollars.
Pisa said some agencies that were unable to pay for the lost
stock were forced to declare bankruptcy and shut down. But that
wasn't the worst of it.
Pisa argued that a rash of agency burglaries in the late 1990s
that took place in various cities around the country were far from
random. Indeed, Pisa argued they were the work of organized
Some law enforcement officials familiar with agency robberies
Through her efforts and those of other agents who had been
victimized, Pisa in October 1997 convened the Travel Agency
Burglary Conference in Lisle, Ill., which months later led to
hearings on Capitol Hill before the House Aviation
During the conference and the hearing, Pisa warned that aside
from the negative economic impact on agencies, stolen tickets posed
a national security threat because they likely were sold on the
black market to criminals, drug smugglers and, indeed, terrorists
who could use them along with other falsified documents to travel
around the country below law enforcement radar.
Her arguments even convinced NBC's "Dateline" newsmagazine and
CNN to do reports on stolen tickets.
This issue has pretty much died as more travelers use electronic
tickets, and Pisa now has retired to Las Vegas.
But few know that Pisa wasn't working alone. In fact, it was
Pisa's daughter who, behind the scenes, had conducted much of the
research about stolen tickets and their potential sale on the black
And Pisa's daughter is, you guessed it, Jackie Ceren.
"[Pisa] was afraid for me," Ceren said, explaining why she
stayed largely in the background. "I have two little kids, and I am
her only daughter."
Ceren said she had appeared on local news shows and CNN reports.
At times, Ceren said, "we would have two news crews in our
But all of that media attention didn't go unnoticed. Ceren said
they were hassled by certain carriers.
For instance, she said, "Every time I flew, I was
security-checked. And that was back in 1998," before today's
enhanced security measures made such checks common.
Many of the issues broached back then are still relevant today,
if not more so, Ceren said.
To draw attention to the stolen ticket problem, Ceren and her
mother sent letters to lawmakers discussing various scenarios,
including one suggesting an airplane hijacking by a criminal
traveling on a stolen ticket.
"We raised that issue then, but nobody did anything," Ceren
It is unclear whether any of the tickets used by the Sept. 11
terrorists were printed on stolen ticket stock, but Ceren said that
remains a danger.
"I don't think security is ever going to get to where it should
be," she said.
Still, Ceren, who purchased her mother's 30-year-old agency in
1998, said working on the stolen ticket issue, getting the story
out to the media and finally persuading the House Aviation
subcommittee to hold a hearing on the subject all played a role in
inspiring her to consider a second career in law.
"[I thought], if I can find out all this information [on stolen
tickets] and help my mother get a congressional hearing, I can go
back to school and become a lawyer," Ceren said. "So that's how it
For the past two years Ceren has been taking law courses at
night -- not an easy thing to do given the long hours at work each
day. The workdays got even longer after the terrorist attacks last
"It probably is going to take me a good four more years to
finish," Ceren said.
But Ceren isn't complaining because, when all is said and done,
she loves the travel industry.
"Why am I still a travel agent? Ask my husband. He'll tell you
I'm nuts," Ceren said with a laugh. "But I think there is something
about this industry. Once it gets in your blood, you can't leave.
So I decided I had to go back to school [to become a lawyer]. I
would rather sue the airlines than sell their airline tickets."
-- Michael Milligan
Safeguarding your personal assets
f I have money in a
401(k) plan and I'm sued, will I lose those funds to
Such funds usually are safe because they are protected in
bankruptcy. However, some states have passed laws that affect IRAs
and other self-employed retirement plans. It's important that you
keep this money safe. Ask your attorney about protection of these
funds in your state.
Will business credit card activity be
reported on a personal credit report?
Assuming you own your agency or you're a partner in it, then the
answer is yes. A business credit card will be included in your
personal credit history.
Corporations are set up to protect personal assets from
liability, which is why credit card applications ask about the
legal structure of your business so that it can clearly define the
responsibility of any debt.
Why are mortgage rates so much lower than commercial
rates for my agency?
Commercial loan rates are generally higher because they are
typically riskier. More commercial loans go unpaid than home
mortgages. Mortgage rates have real estate as collateral, and real
estate usually increases in value.
A commercial venture puts up its assets as collateral, which
usually translates into office furniture, computers and other
These depreciate in value, making them less likely to cover the
debt in the event of default.
If you are shopping for a loan for your agency, it is better to
get a line of credit from your bank, even at a higher rate.
If you own your home, you can get a less expensive rate if you
base the loan on the equity in your home. But keep in mind that
your risk jumps substantially.
Consider that if the business can't pay back the loan, it likely
can't pay you a salary either. So you would lose both your job and
Keep your nest egg safe, even if you have to pay a higher
Former agency owner Dan McManus is president of the McManus
Group, publishers of business management advice. Contact him at [email protected].