The recent hearing by the House aviation subcommittee on stolen airline ticket stock provided a welcome airing of the issue and a public view of airline attitudes.

It wasn't exactly a whitewash, but it hardly gave agents hope for meaningful changes to get them off the hook when they are victimized by accomplished thieves.

The airlines conceded that although ticket theft is a problem for any agent affected, it is not a major problem for the industry (only the barest fraction of coupons distributed to agents are stolen). Besides, agents can protect themselves.

It hardly could have been consoling to agents who have been robbed to hear David Collins, president of the Airlines Reporting Corp., say that although a problem did exist, "it is now being addressed by many, but not all, of the major airlines."

The airlines said they could use help from federal law enforcement officials, but this seemed more lip service than a call to action. They were not calling on Congress for legislation. New laws might require them to become more vigilant.

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What agents proposed -- a limit on liability; in this case, 10% of the price on the stolen ticket -- was reasonable, the kind of protection you'd get if you were a consumer and your credit card were stolen.

They proposed that airlines check all tickets at the gate, that stealing airline tickets be made a felony and that people who travel on stolen tickets pay restitution to the agency whose tickets were stolen.

They also suggested that data on passengers who travel on stolen tickets be turned over to law-enforcement authorities. All of which makes sense.

Barbara Pisa, president of Classic Travel in Naperville, Ill., who was instrumental in getting the committee to hold the hearing, observed that only two law officers in the entire U.S. are devoted to the problem and said a federal task force is gravely needed now. Such a task force could inspire Congress to act.

But the airlines' message from this hearing is that the stolen ticket problem is going away.... Electronic tickets are diminishing the problem.... There is no need now to do anything....

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