The Travel Adviser: Thou shalt not steal

When it comes to stealing from large, multinational corporations like airlines, too many of us feel entitled.

Flight (370) (photo credit: Courtesy Delta)
Flight (370)
(photo credit: Courtesy Delta)
“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.
However, when 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 commenced.
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 luck.”
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 off.
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 attacks.
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 wiser.
Today, with electronic tickets, it requires a level of sophistication to erase such flights and then illegally reissue the tickets.
Who really loses in this instance? It is only stealing from international companies.
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 returning.
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.
Delta 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.
AMEX 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 challenged.
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 involved.
The facts are simple; Delta has already closed down the travel agency’s office, thus taking away their privilege to issue tickets.
This 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 coconspirator.
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 me.
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 picking.
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 Airways.
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]