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Airline Consolidators: Scams or Bargains?

A disgruntled traveler recently sent an email to me—and apparently to some other consumer advocates—about a distressing experience with an online ticket agency. I’m not identifying the agency because my function is to explain how problems arise and what to do about them, not to post and pursue individual complaints. As far as I can tell, the root of the reader’s problem is that the agency sells “consolidator” tickets, and consolidator tickets pose some inherent risks. When the system works, consolidator tickets can be far cheaper than advertised prices, but when something goes wrong, consumers can be forced to pay a lot more than the regular fare, not less.

Here’s what happened: My reader needed two round-trip tickets from Los Angeles to London to attend a family funeral. She searched online and found an agency with what appeared to be the lowest prices. She booked two tickets, for $1,924 each, and paid with a credit card. She received a confirmation notice, saying that the status of the tickets was “confirmed.” After several days, however, she noted no payment to the agency on her credit-card statement. She emailed the agency, and after receiving no answer to her messages, she called the agency, where an agent told her that no reservations had been made then gave her a series of lame excuses. This, despite the earlier message that the tickets were confirmed. By this time, the agent told her, the only available tickets would cost around $3,500 each—almost double the original quote. She concluded, not unreasonably, that the agency was engaging in bait-and-switch tactics. I’m not sure—I can’t tell if this was an outright scam or just a glitch in the system.

For decades, travel writers have been touting the benefits of consolidator tickets, which, as they claim, are often much less expensive than tickets at published prices. And for decades, many writers have given the wrong explanation. “Consolidators buy tickets in bulk at discounted prices,” they say, and they “pass the discounts along to consumers.” This is flat-out incorrect, at least in most cases: Consolidators do not “buy” in bulk, in advance; instead, airlines allow them to tap designated inventories of seats at unpublished prices that are below published fares. Consolidators never “own” any inventory of tickets. They buy tickets separately for each transaction. They do not pay the airline—actually take control of the tickets and provide firm reservations—until after they’ve collected money from travelers.

This is not a “distinction without a difference.” Because consolidators control no inventory, they “sell” discounted tickets before they actually buy them, and occasionally they find the discount tickets are no longer available. This situation is not necessarily a scam; it can occur inadvertently—but it can also be a scam. And all too often customers don’t find out about the discrepancy until too late to find an equivalent cheap ticket through any source.

Given this inherent problem, you have to be careful with consolidator tickets:

  • The best consolidator prices are for long-haul international flights in business and first class, where discounts are often as high as 50 percent.
  • Consolidator prices can sometimes be good on domestic tickets, too, but mostly on short notice, closer to the flight date than the airline’s advance-purchase requirement for cheap tickets.
  • If the difference between published and consolidator fares is small, stick with published fare tickets; they’re not as risky.
  • Whenever you consider dealing with a consolidator—or an obscure agency that might sell consolidator tickets—check for possible problems before you commit. In this case, a simple Google search of the agency’s name plus “complaints” disclosed enough bad history to make most people decide to buy somewhere else.
  • If you do buy, as soon as you get a “confirmed” message, check with the airline to make sure you really have reservations.

The vast majority of consolidator tickets work as promised, with no problems. But, if you can avoid it, you don’t want to accept even a small risk.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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