The travel adviser: Fiduciary duty

When you sign up for a frequent flyer program, or even buy an airline ticket you’re giving the airline most of the power in any dispute that may arise down the road.

Passport [illustrative] (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Passport [illustrative]
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
In these litigious days, it bears warning when a reader contacts me asking who is responsible for not informing him that he purchased a nonrefundable ticket and now has no choice but to cancel his ticket. In fact, it behooves all of us to understand what is meant by a fiduciary duty. In essence it’s a legal duty to act solely in another party’s interest.
My clients who are lawyers may quibble but in the travel agency industry, it’s simply when the client has placed with his travel consultant the utmost trust and confidence to protect his interests. We the travel consultants are thus fiduciaries. The clients to whom they owe this duty are client principals. Fiduciary responsibility involves an extremely high degree of trust and an obligation to act in the interest of the principal, in your case the traveler, ahead of your own interests.
Ironically and tragically, it seems clear that today we are in the Age of Terrorism. From the standpoint of the business of travel agents, it does not matter how terrorism is labeled or what its source of inspiration is. From every legal, practical and moral viewpoint, it is a mistake to disregard the reality of our clients’ exposure to these forces. The threat is universal and will not abate any time soon.
It is also true that the odds of injury from terrorism are, and likely will remain, very small. Data show that the risks are far greater from automobile accidents, drowning or lightning strikes. Of course, statistics are cold comfort when we are confronted with the television and social media displays of the carnage from a terrorism event. Terrorism seems larger than it is because it is so extraordinary, irrational and damaging, and we see and hear about it around the clock. This does not mean that travel agents can ignore it, but it does mean that the reaction to it should be measured and coherent – consistent with reality rather than driven by fear. Taking the opportunity to discuss your concerns with a travel consultant, should assist you in making a more educated decision.
Recently I’ve had clients in Shanghai unwilling to transit via Istanbul stating the fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin may elect to send a military strike into the heart of Turkey as revenge for a Russian plane being shot down. My job is to explain to them the risks rather than belittle their emotional duress.
The question really is: How does the specter of terrorism change how we conduct our business? The answer requires that we understand our obligations, and that we acquire and use the available tools to help us perform those duties. If you present yourself as an expert – a travel professional – you must conduct your business in line with that claim. You must also assure that your staff is sensitized to agency’s obligations to each client whose travel you facilitate, and adequately trained to do what is required every time.
Fiduciary responsibility involves an extremely high degree of trust and an obligation to act in the interest of the principal, in your case the traveler, ahead of your own interests. All travelers have options on where they chose to spend their money; low cost carriers have spread like octopus tentacles realizing there was a market for inexpensive airfares devoid of any services beyond the minimum required by government authorities.
Use it or lose it is the underlying motto for the vast majority. Buy and fly is what they are selling you.
The ability to discourse with a travel professional is rarity... clicking away on your computer is what you have been taught to do. Responsibility has shifted to you the consumer, to verify your passport is correct; you have a visa to the country you’re flying into; the dates you selected are indeed what you desired.
This Tantric shift alleviates most of the carrier’s responsibility from their hands into yours; short of making sure the aircraft is safe and the terminals from whence they fly are secure, little else is of their concern.
Being a fiduciary does not mean that a travel agent is a guarantor of a perfect travel experience. It is not reasonable to expect travel agents to be able to protect clients from terrorism. Nor does it obligate an agent to try to talk a client out of going to a particular place. Paris comes to mind.
On a less extreme level, it does mean that your travel agent will make sure you have a valid passport; that you do have a visa to visit the country you’re flying to. It means that basic communication is given not just orally but in written form, detailing your exact itinerary, the airlines involved and the conditions pertaining to canceling or changing your ticket once it has been purchase.
When it was discovered that the reader’s ticket had not been purchased by himself online but by an old fashioned bricks and mortar travel agency, I counseled him to speak to senior management to resolve his claim. Nobody is perfect, and travel agents too can make mistakes. Stepping up and taking responsibility is at the forefront of any professional relationship and the cost to blur ones responsibility should not be excused.
Travel agents are required to have a broad knowledge of the world, especially popular travel destinations.
When you are planning a leisure vacation, a travel agent can suggest locations that fit your travel wants and needs. For business travelers, travel agents can offer knowledge about locations for meetings and conferences and suggest must-do activities for leisure time.
Additionally, a good travel consultant can inform you about local laws, customs, climate, travel documentation and travel advisories that concern your destination. Not only will travel agents book your trip and tell you about where you are going, but they can take care of transfers, and assist in upgrades and any special requests that you may have – for example, low-fat meals on your flight or a specific room or floor at a hotel.
The direct relationship that travel agents have with companies allows them to go above and beyond for their customers. Remember though the travel consultant is only as good as the information that you provide him or her with. Take for example your frequent flier number.
Previous columns have written extensively about the three major Airline Alliances that exist: One World, Sky Team and Star Alliance. It’s been mentioned that both EL AL and the majority of the Middle Eastern airlines are not members. It bears repeating that other than El Al, registrations in these frequent flier programs are free and while the value of the miles continue to lessen over the years and the miles needed to gain an award continue to climb it still has many benefits.
Make no mistake: Inattentive program members can suffer lost miles and lost rewards, but actual expulsion is rare and limited to just a few scenarios.
That said, it’s not unheard of, and it’s worth knowing what you should look out for. Here are a few ways you could get kicked out of your frequent flyer program.
Frequent flyers, especially elites, are typically an airline’s best customers. These people fly regularly and give the airline a ton of their (or their company’s) money, ergo they expect and often receive special service and extra attention. There is such a thing as expecting too much, though, and airlines will cut ties with customers who make unreasonable demands or abuse their privileged status. Being elite doesn’t make you king, and if an airline feels it’s being bled dry by incessant (and dubious) complaints and demands for compensation, it can and will remove you from its program.
Obvious cheating is another way to be kicked out.
The example among one of my clients was hidden- city ticketing. If you aren’t familiar, this is the practice of buying a multi-leg ticket that connects in your actual intended destination. These connecting itineraries can be cheaper than booking the direct flight you want, and so you just hop off at your desired destination and go on your merry way. Well, this is very much against every airlines’ contract of carriage, and if you’re caught doing it, especially repeatedly, airlines can target your miles or even your membership as punishment. I stress “can” because actual examples of this are fuzzy, but let’s just say you engage in this practice at your own peril.
There’s an entire culture devoted to finding and exploiting loopholes in frequent flyer programs, but outright cheating, and making a habit of it, will get your carrier’s attention sooner than later. In fact reading the agreement you sign with the airline’s program illuminates they can cancel your mileage with little cause.
Here is some choice verbiage from Delta’s SkyMiles rules and conditions: Delta reserves the right to terminate your membership in the SkyMiles program at any time if you violate the SkyMiles Membership Guide and Program Rules, any term or condition of Delta’s contract of carriage, Delta’s fare rules or any other Delta rule and regulation that apply to your travel.
You don’t need to be a lawyer to understand what these paragraphs mean, but I’ll spell it out. When you sign up for a frequent flyer program, or even buy an airline ticket you’re giving the airline most of the power in any dispute that may arise down the road. So whether you trust yourself or your travel agent keep in mind the following: Trust is not a matter of technique, tricks or tools but of character, and as Warren Buffet has been quoted: “It takes years to build a good reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”
The author is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments: