“Thou shalt not steal” is No. 8 on my favorite Top 10 list - the 10 Commandments
of the Torah.
Though usually understood to prohibit the unauthorized taking of private
property, this commandment is interpreted by traditional Jewish commentaries to
apply to the theft of an actual person.
In Hebrew, the word “steal” is
translated into “ganav’’ or the Yiddish pronunciation, “gonniff.” The use of
this word is more commonly applied to material possessions.
it comes to stealing from large, multinational corporations like airlines, too
many of us feel entitled.
Let the tale begin. Yossi came into my office a
few months ago with an offer, apparently too good to pass up. It seems that due
to currency fluctuations, purchasing a ticket issued in Buenos Aires could
result in a huge savings rather than paying for it in dollars. Dressed in a long
black jacket, he stroked his beard with deep concentration as he explained in
detail how it worked. Seemed that several airlines, such as El Al, United and
Delta, had software glitches where the prices of airline tickets in Argentina
were priced in the local currency, regardless of where the travel
Say, for example, you wanted a ticket from Tel Aviv to New
York. Purchasing it online or via any travel consultant, the ticket was $1,500
in economy class or $3,500 in business class. Buy it from an office in Buenos
Aires, and you could save several hundred dollars. Yossi’s proposition was
simple – give him $50,000 to open up a line of credit with an associate of his
in South America, and huge savings would follow.
“Trusting” soul that I
am, I gently escorted him from my office with a hearty “Good
Nonplussed, he walked the streets of Mea She’arim, Bnei Brak and
Ramat Beit Shemesh. Here in these close-knit ultra- Orthodox neighborhoods, he
found willing travel agencies who decided to take him up on his offer. Monies
flowed across borders, airline tickets were sold in the droves and these
fortunate agency owners pocketed the huge savings.
It took a while for
the airlines to realize their own software glitch was causing a huge loss of
income, and within a month it was stopped. Like many viruses, it jumped from
country to country, and Mexico became the next country with a weak currency
whose software could be manipulated and these same airlines ripped
These airlines’ local offices in Israel watched their sales plummet,
fully cognizant of what was transpiring, and within a few weeks – or months in
the case of El Al – plugged the hole. Hello, Venezuela.
Caracas is the
capital and largest city of Venezuela. Located in the northern part of the
country, it has a population of over 3 million, separated from the coast by a
steep mountain range. In fact, the history of Venezuela is replete with pirate
attacks along the coast, while the height of Caracas kept her immune from such
Today’s pirates need no ships to pillage; just a bevy of yeshiva
bochurs able to exploit the system.
Like financial traders of the recent
past, these Talmudic scholars found a way to manipulate the computer reservation
system and have tickets originate in Caracas, without the passenger ever having
set foot there.
My entry into this murky world of shenanigans came when
an old associate now living in Brooklyn called me in the early morning hours,
seeking my counsel.
Seems Nina had purchased, through someone operating
out of Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, close to 100 tickets for clients flying
on Delta from New York to Tel Aviv. She told me in shame that the tickets were
issued on Delta Airlines flying from Caracas to JFK, from JFK to Tel Aviv, then
back from Tel Aviv to JFK with a stop before continuing on to Caracas. Delta was
now refusing to let them board the aircraft in Tel Aviv.
A third party
had reissued these tickets to remove the Caracas-New York-Caracas portion,
leaving only the JFK-Tel Aviv-JFK flights. A decade ago before the onset of
electronic tickets, this was a fairly simple procedure. Pull the coupons from
the paper ticket, cancel the flights in the system and no one was the
Today, with electronic tickets, it requires a level of
sophistication to erase such flights and then illegally reissue the
Who really loses in this instance? It is only stealing from
Surely it can’t be a moral crime to steal from
El Al or Delta or United? My first reaction was deep admiration for the brazen
attack on the airlines; to manipulate the system, reissue the tickets and assume
one would never be caught left me mesmerized by their chutzpah. The fact that
the airlines’ corporate fraud unit let this continue for such a long time was
less of a surprise.
Nonetheless, I pointed out that the connection
between the passenger and the nefarious travel agent involved two separate
items. Even if the tickets were illegally issued, or reissued, the fact that
Delta allowed them to fly one direction meant they could not stop them from
The passengers, willing conspirators in this fraud, were not
legally responsible for what transpired. Abuse of system can only be caused by
the travel agent; no passenger can reissue his or her ticket on their own. It
must be done with the compliance of the airline or travel agent.
Airlines in Israel disagreed with my analysis, pointing out they could suspend a
ticket at any time if they felt it was illegal.
My associate in Brooklyn,
Nina, confided that the previous night when Delta tried to deny boarding, the
passengers caused such a ruckus, threatening to call the police, that Delta
employees at the airport acquiesced and let them fly.
No such luck for
this family – Delta’s tactic was less obvious. Explaining to them the tickets
had been suspended, they informed the foursome that it would take time to be
investigated – and odds were high they would miss their flight. Screaming
incessantly at Nina, she reached her conspirator, who quickly sold them four
one-way tickets on El Al. Paying by American Express, they moved over to the El
Al counter and flew back to the Big Apple.
In fact, this travel agent in
Jerusalem, David, outdid himself. He sold them an American Airlines ticket,
which read “Tel Aviv to New York to Caracas,” for the bargain price of $800 – vs
El Al’s one-way fare of over $1,400. Nina emailed him their AMEX details; he did
the charge himself and issued them the tickets.
El Al should not be
affected. The passengers will dispute their credit card charge, refusing to pay
twice for tickets which in good faith they had already purchased.
will most likely back them up. David will be out the money, but by then will
have moved to another agency. American Airlines will still have to pay El Al,
but will never see a penny – as David’s pattern is to cease payment when
Nina was very concerned, as not only was she scheduled to fly
herself later in the week, she has 30 passengers who will be flying back to the
US before the High Holy Days. My counsel was simple: Get a lawyer
The facts are simple; Delta has already closed down the travel
agency’s office, thus taking away their privilege to issue tickets.
has been done in the past by United Airlines, against other offices in Israel
who defrauded the airline. However, even if the travel agent never makes
payment, even if the tickets are illegal (and they are!), the passenger cannot
be denied boarding without proof that he or she was a willing
A lawyer was engaged; a strong letter to Delta was
composed. Delta had no choice but to capitulate and allow the passengers to use
these tickets. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on
I’ve discussed and dissected this with colleagues and airline
executives for some time. For the life of me, I cannot fathom how so many people
raised with a deep ethical set of values find themselves so easily ripping off
these companies. Do they really accept the narrow view that “Thou shalt not
steal” applies only to slavery? Do they convince themselves that the ends
justify the means? David flew off to Mexico to arrange his latest scheme. Seems
the peso there is also quite weak and the system is ripe for
Being burned by El Al, United and Delta, he’s found his latest
patsy, one that several more of his colleagues are now shredding up – US
Let’s see how quickly US Airways sees their sales in Mexico
escalate before realizing they are being duped. Seasoned travelers are
well-versed in their own commandment: If it sounds too good to be true, it
usually is.Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions
and comments, email him at [email protected]