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Airline Mismanagement

Obeying the Eleventh Commandment?

The airlines have been very reluctant to prosecute anyone who exploits their crazy airfare loopholes, almost like they're afraid as to how a court would rule if presented with a case.

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How to Make it Difficult for the Airlines to Catch You

If you feel the opportunity to save money is too good to miss, your choices are either to become a test case or else to obey the 'eleventh commandment - the one that says 'Don't Get Caught'!

Part 3 of a 3 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three




I'm not advising you to break the rules. I'm not encouraging you to make use of the loopholes discussed in the previous two articles; indeed, I'm cautioning you that if you do, you may be committing criminal acts (theft of services) as well as definitely contravening the airlines' conditions of carriage.

But, if you're merely interested in understanding (for educational purposes!) how the airlines track and catch offenders, read on.


No One Forces the Airlines to Sell Cheaper Roundtrip Tickets

A More Legal Variation of Back to Backs

The more closely legal your strategy is, the less likely it is to attract negative scrutiny. Using again my Syracuse examples, let's say that you fly regularly to Syracuse for each working week, but return home for the weekends. Here is a close to 100% legal way of enjoying back to back tickets.

Buy a one way ticket from home to Syracuse. Then, buy roundtrip tickets from Syracuse back home for each weekend, and back to Syracuse again. You are now traveling on each ticket, in perfect order, with no other tickets in the middle.

But the airline audit computers may still spot this behavior, and they might have a confrontation with you, if they know that your home address is not in Syracuse. How would they know this? By your frequent flier details! Read on....

Frequent Flier Numbers Tell All

The easiest way for an airline to track everything you do is by your frequent flier number. This immediately enables the airline to conveniently match up all the tickets you buy (and they know where you bought each ticket from, when you made the booking, when you paid for the ticket, and everything else about your travels) and the way you use them, and where you live.

If you want to 'stay under the radar screen' then any dubious ticket you use must not contain your frequent flier number. Don't feel bad about this - the money you save is worth a great deal more than the miles you lose.

The key thing is to make it difficult for the airlines to match your various flights up with each other. Frequent flier numbers make this easy. And what makes it difficult? Read on.....

Joe Smith and Joseph Smith, at Home and at Work

Make it more difficult for the airline to match your travels. Do some of your traveling with one variant of your name, and the rest of your traveling with a different variant.

Maybe your name is Mary Susan Jones. Who isn't to know that you prefer to be called Susan rather than Mary (as long as your driver's license or other photo ID such as passport shows both names in full - mine do and yours probably do too), so sometimes buy tickets as Mary Jones and sometimes as Susan Jones.

Reader Phil adds 'You might also try to mis-spell or transpose some letters in your last name. That seems to foil their computers as well.'

And, to encourage the appearance of different personas, use a home phone number for one variation of your name and a business phone number for the other. Perhaps even sometimes use a cellphone number. Buy the tickets from different agencies (or, better still, when buying dubious tickets, buy them direct from the airline so as to be able to say 'but you sold me the ticket yourself and never told me I couldn't do this').

Don't forget to use different credit cards, too!

Remember, anything that goes into your airline record can be matched against other records, so try and keep your two personalities as different from each other as possible, with little or nothing in common that could match them together.

Keep a Low Profile at the Airport

Conventional wisdom says to be as friendly as possible with gate agents in the hope of being remembered and therefore being more likely to get upgrades.

But, if you're trying to beat their systems, try to avoid being recognized by airline gate agents. You don't want them to get curious about your travel patterns. It is fine to be as friendly as you like with the cabin crews on board, but avoid the gate agents.

There are exceptions to this situation, of course, but don't rely on this! Even some airline people have retained some common sense - they'd rather have all of your business, even at low yield, as this story from reader John confirms :

Had an interesting experience with American several years ago, at a time when I was flying from home to Chicago and back about 50 times a year, using back-to-back round trip tickets to hold the costs within reason.

At the time American had a downtown ticket office in my home city, and when I came in to pick up my tickets, the lady at the desk gave me sort of a funny look. . . like a "keep your mouth shut, dummy." I realized that a supervisor from Dallas was in the back room, only a few feet away, and could hear all our conversation.

He came out, we chatted a bit, and he remarked that I must fly American a lot, and we got into a discussion about some of their weird rules. He said "The suits in Dallas don't have any understanding of the real world. They put in idiotic rules to forbid back to back tickets, without understanding that if they try to enforce them, they wind up losing half the business they do with the passenger, since he can use AA for one set of tickets and United for the other."

He continued "Not only do we lose half the revenue we have been getting, the passenger gets a premium status with a competitor, and maybe winds up liking them better than they do AA. They are so arrogant in HQ they just don't have a clue about the real world."

Did he know I was doing that? I don't know. He might have. My friend at the desk said later he had been looking at records of some of their Platinum customers, and it may have jumped out at him.

But what I do know is that he had a lot better understanding of his customers than his rule-making bosses in Dallas.

The Beauty of Competition - and the Danger of Cooperation

This is the closest to a bulletproof strategy that exists.

Fly two different airlines for the two halves of your travel. The chances of two completely unrelated airlines being able to look and see what your travels are like on each other are minimal to zero - for example, it is highly unlikely that American would allow Delta to access their computer flight records.

But the chance of an airline being able to see what you are doing with a partner airline are much greater, especially if you use the same frequent flier number with both airlines. For example, don't fly Northwest one way and Alaska the other way, and certainly don't use your same Alaska frequent flier number with both airlines. Don't fly on two Star Alliance (or oneworld) partner carriers.


Can the airlines legally require you to buy the highest, rather than lowest, fare applicable to your travels? The airlines insist they can, and because they control who gets on their plane, they have the ability to enforce this.

As to the ultimate legality of their case, they have conspicuously avoided any opportunity to have their claim tested in court.

If you feel that the airlines are wrong in their claim, and choose to fly in the way that suits you and gives you the lowest cost, you are probably best advised to do so in an inconspicuous manner, so as to avoid the risk of a nasty confrontation at the gate just as your flight is about to depart, or unless you have the time and money to become a 'test case' through the courts.

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Originally published 23 August 2002, last update 20 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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