ON THURSDAY 9 December, Glen Newey travelled to Heathrow expecting to pick up tickets for that afternoon's 16.00 British Airways flight to Istanbul. Earlier in the week he had telephoned an agency near London's Leicester Square (police investigations prevent us from naming the agency in question), and had agreed to pay pounds 326 for two tickets. He sent the agency a cheque and in return received a confirmation invoice, and the advice to pick up the tickets at the British Airways desk at Heathrow.

When he arrived at the ticket desk, however, there were no tickets waiting for him. He discovered that while a booking had indeed been made in his name, it had subsequently been cancelled.

He tried immediately to call the agency, but it was no longer answering the telephone. A call to his bank revealed that the cheque had been cashed. He had lost both the tickets and his money. BA offered to sell Mr Newey two new tickets to Istanbul - but, at an asking price of pounds 530, it was an offer he could refuse.

Further investigations revealed that the company from which the tickets were bought was non-Abta, non-Iata and non- Atol - it was therefore unbonded, which meant that no refund was available through official channels.

What was more, since he had paid by cheque, he was not even able to claim a refund from his credit card company, as cardholders can under the Consumer Credit Act.

It is reckoned to be a great deal safer to buy discounted air tickets now than it was 10 years ago when the bucket-shop business was the stomping ground of some of the worst rogues in London. But while the business has been cleaned up, it is still not entirely safe.

Gordon Powell, the assistant director of the consumer protection division of Westminster Trading Standards Office, says that Mr Newey's unhappy experience is not unusual. 'Unfortunately, it's a very common problem. In Westminster we usually get about half a dozen situations like this a year. But it's been particularly bad this year because the travel industry seems to have had a tough time.'

Mr Powell says that it is 'ridiculously' easy for a cheap ticket agency to set up in business. 'They don't need a licence - all they need is an office and a phone. It's as simple as that.'

Natu Bhoola of Britalia Travel, a long established agency with wide experience of the cheap ticket business, says that the industry is still plagued by sharp operators. 'I would guess that every week we hear about an agency that has disappeared with the customers' money.'

Mr Bhoola says he is surprised that customers are ready to hand over money to unbonded agencies without receiving a ticket in return. 'It is a cardinal rule that people should not part with money until they are entirely sure that the agency they are dealing with is properly bonded. Picking up tickets at the airport is OK only as long as you know that the agency is a bona fide company.'

He also advises against paying for tickets with cash or cheque. 'You should always pay with a credit card - then if the agency disappears you can at least recover your money from the credit card company.'

Mr Bhoola wants tighter control of this sector of the travel agency market. 'It's about time the law was changed. These fly- by-night agencies are giving the whole business a bad name - they must be stopped.'

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