For his egregious technical error, Len Steinke, owner of Morgan Travel Service in Fort Morgan, Colo., received a debit memo from Northwest for $358.88.

Steinke was told that he had failed to "end the record" properly on a seven-day advance-purchase reservation for an elderly client. His 80-year old client had booked a $470.72 seat from Denver to Fargo, N.D., but she had failed to stop by for the ticket within the required 24-hour time limit.

When she appeared a week later, Steinke canceled the old reservation and rebooked her at the same $470.72 fare as still priced in the agency's Apollo reservations system. He assumed everything would be OK. There was nothing wrong with the new ticket. But shame on him. He had failed to hit the "end of record" button while canceling the original reservation.

When he inquired about the $358.88 debit memo -- charging him, in effect, for the coach fare -- the airline's auditor told him, "Pay it, it's our airline."

***

Why Northwest would treat anyone like that -- let alone its sales agent who could have booked his client on United -- is beyond us.

It ought to know that CRS vendors do not make it easy for agents under fire, taking call after call, to transfer data. There is a time-consuming process to end one record and then start another.

When we asked our own bright, cheery and articulate agent if airlines could make the process simpler, she said, "Oh, please! The airlines do not miss any opportunity to screw travel agents. They are trying to make it as difficult as possible for us. I'm convinced of that."

The $358.88 bears no relationship to the cost of this innocent slip. It was not money collected from the passenger, who paid for a 7-day advance-purchase fare. The "punishment" -- if that's what it is supposed to be -- does not fit the crime. What's more, there is no appeals process. If it's not quite theft, what is it?

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