The Travel Adviser: Ticket to ride

It's not only your passport you have to remember.

bg airport 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bg airport 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Julie was ready. She had her own and her husband's passports with her, each of them valid for more than six months. She was carrying no liquids at all, because she didn't want any hassles about what could be taken on the plane and what could not. She had double-checked before leaving home that the flight was departing on time. She had print outs of her flights and a record of her confirmation number. She had duplicate copies of the emails received from United Airlines including the confirmation. She was as prepared as one could possibly be… or so she thought. The story was simple enough. Julie and her husband had reserved flights with BMI to London. Most airlines belong to alliances, allowing miles accumulated on one airline to be used for flights on one of their partner airlines. The largest airline alliance in this case happens to be the Star Alliance, comprising over a dozen airlines including such heavyweights as Lufthansa, Air Canada and United Airlines. Being frequent fliers of United Airlines and desiring to fly to London, Julie quickly discovered that BMI, previously known as British Midland International, had two daily flights from Tel Aviv to London and was a charter member of the Star Alliance. Julie was very thorough. When booking with United Airlines she made sure to reserve specific seats and meals. Her credit card was duly charged for the airport taxes and the fuel surcharges. Remember, there is no such thing as a free ticket; bonus ticket would be the correct terminology. She followed up her reservation by contacting BMI, who acknowledged her booking reference and confirmed her seats. So why did Julie turn to me asking for my assistance in getting a refund from British Airways (a completely different airline) of $1,143 for two last-minute tickets she was forced to purchase at Ben Gurion Airport? "When we arrived at Ben Gurion to check in, BMI told us they had notes of our bookings and phone calls. They could see the reservation but could not issue us with boarding cards, as we were not in their computer system. We were shown to the BMI ticketing desk and two extremely disinterested young women kept us waiting for over half an hour before announcing that their computer would not issue our tickets! By this time it was 4:30 am, and when I weakly asked what we should do, they replied to go home and call BMI later that morning." I should point out that Julie and her husband are pensioners and their trip to London was for a medical reason. Having no other option, they walked over to the British Airways counter, and purchased, on the spot, two last-minute tickets. Upon their return, they wrote to BMI demanding an explanation. Two weeks later they received a reply from BMI denying all responsibility, despite BMI having been presented with all the relevant paperwork and printed bookings. THE MYSTERY was solved in a matter of minutes. It only took me one simple question to discover the blunder. When mileage tickets are reserved - or for that matter, almost all tickets - on any airline and payment is made, there is only one final step: to receive the electronic tickets. But while Julie's credit card had been charged instantly, she had never received any E-tickets. All she had taken to the airport was a reservation number. Actually BMI was completely blameless. We can blame airlines for many things - (Delta Airlines is the first airline to commence charging $50 for a second checked bag on all international flights from July 1, for instance) - but not BMI in this case. When you book a flight through a third party, be it a travel agent, an internet site or another airline, the actual airline you're flying with bears no responsibility to ensure you've actually had a ticket issued. BMI was totally in the right to prevent Julie and her husband from boarding. A reservation is simply a record that you've booked a flight. Only a ticket, electronic or otherwise, indicates you can actually check-in and take it. United Airlines is the culprit in this case. Someone screwed up big time. Charging her credit card, reserving their seats, but never issuing the actual tickets is a neat trick. BMI were only culpable for the shoddy treatment that Julie received from its staff at the airport. Airline staff may be overworked and underpaid and forced to deal with a myriad of issues, but even a new employee would have realized that no tickets were ever issued for their reservation. Julie should have been quickly informed of this problem and instructed to call United Airlines, which is open 24 hours a day in the US, and had United airlines issue her their E-tickets. Julie took my advice and wrote to both BMI and United Airlines detailing her difficult experience. BMI's management took pity on Julie and actually refunded her the $1,143 that they had paid for their British Airways tickets. Kudos to BMI. United promised her an investigation into the mishap, sheepishly agreed to refund her airport taxes and were kind enough to refund their frequent flier miles, originally taken for their bonus tickets. The lesson for the rest of us: Never show up at the airport without your E-ticket, or at least the number. Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at