Simon Calder column

The best way for airlines to stamp out tariff abuse is to make all air travel ticketless
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The Independent Culture
THANKFULLY, IT is a less serious matter than, say, substance abuse. But the world's airlines are worried by tariff abuse. The definition: "People book in one class of travel and then, by deceit, get to travel in a higher class for which they have not paid."

Isn't this just an upgrade by another name? Not according to the Board of Airline Representatives UK, the trade association for airlines flying to and from Britain. The organisation's new handbook says tariff abuse, as defined above, is a fraud costing the airlines millions.

A popular trick, apparently, is to get hold of some revalidation stickers - those tiny slips of paper that are stuck to your ticket when you change a flight reservation - and simply write "C" for business or "F" for first, instead of economy. Another ruse is for an unscrupulous travel agent (could there possibly be such a thing?) to make a booking in one class but issue the ticket in another.

Airlines have the biggest, most powerful civilian computer systems in the world. You'd imagine any discrepancy would be picked up at check- in. But tariff abusers take advantage of the fact that, outside their home countries, airlines aren't usually handled by their own staff. The check-in officials may be unfamiliar with the airline's computer codes and fail to spot the deception.

Yet where does trying for an upgrade become tariff abuse? Is an economy- class passenger who turns left instead of right upon entering the aircraft, in a bid to blag a business-class seat, committing a similar fraud? The best hope for airlines is to make all air travel ticketless, but no doubt someone will still find an electronic loophole.

THE DIRECTORY section of the Bar UK handbook gives each airline the chance to present itself in the best light. Air Algerie is circumspect about the impact of the tragic civil war: "In spite of a considerable drop in demand for air travel to Algeria, the airline has successfully ridden the storm and diversified both products and prices to meet customer demand."

Singapore Airlines, which prides itself on in-flight service, reveals that when it was founded in 1947 "There were no cabin crew on board and the only refreshment available was iced water." An airline from the Gulf, meanwhile, reveals its new marketing ploy: "Qatar Airways is no longer a dry airline, and offers a superb choice of champagnes and wines."

Aerolineas Argentinas says it "links London with Argentina nine times a week". But the national carrier stopped flying from Britain to Buenos Aires two years ago, and now gets no closer than Madrid.

For that flight to Argentina, then, why not try United's daily service from Heathrow? After all, as the handbook says, "United Airlines is the world's largest air carrier [with] a route network which spans 32 countries". One of the longest flights is UA 979, which takes off every night from London, destination Buenos Aires. Sort of.

The flight is actually just one of the four daily departures to New York, where you change planes for the onwards leg to Argentina. The whole journey takes more than 19 hours. It is enough to drive you to a spot of tariff abuse.