Searching for air? Flyer beware: Travel Weekly

New York resident Paula Abreu was looking for a refundable ticket to Montreal last December when, she says, she Googled the simple phrase, “Delta phone number.”

A moment later, when she dialed the first number that appeared on the search result, her guard was down, she says, as the agent answered the phone with the greeting, “Air tickets.”

Over the conversation that ensued, according to Abreu, the agent offered inaccurate advice, telling her that she couldn’t book a refundable ticket through the Delta.com website and also saying that she would have to buy a first-class ticket if she wanted refundability. Throughout the call, the agent led her to believe she was speaking with Delta.

As the call was winding down, the agent emailed Abreu a contract for a $1,489 ticket, which she says she signed without reading. Though the contract did not specify it, subsequent documents showed the price included a $520 agency fee, in addition to the Delta ticket price of $969. The contract also stated that the ticket wasn’t refundable.

Abreu, 40, said she only began to realize that she hadn’t dealt directly with Delta when she attempted to cancel the flight a week later and was told that she couldn’t.

“I travel internationally at least four times a year,” she said. “It’s not like I was fooled because I’m a fool. The guy misled me in a way that someone like me, who is experienced in traveling, fell for.”

The company Abreu had actually done business with was Naples, Fla.-based Travel Service Pad, which also operates as Airtickets and which is a subsidiary of UK-based A1 Travel Deals.

In February, in response to Abreu protesting the charge, Citibank refunded Travel Service Pad’s $520 agency fee, though she can’t get a refund on that Delta ticket.

But it wasn’t the money that was most upsetting to Abreu.

“What made me most angry is that he song,” she said of the Travel Service Pad agent.

Interviews with other alleged victims — as well as complaints received by the Better Business Bureau (BBB), posted to Facebook and made to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — show that Abreu is far from the only apparent victim of Travel Service Pad.

In fact, my father, Ken Silk, was ensnared by the company last October when an unwitting call to the agency as he tried to reach Southwest resulted in him paying $1,585 in fees and flight credits and losing out on $1,030 in Southwest vouchers, only to end up with the exact same Southwest itinerary as he had before making the call.

A Travel Service Pad employee who identified himself as James Malloy and said he was the company’s customer services team leader acknowledged to me in a phone call in late March that there had been incidents involving some of their sales representatives but that the company is now working diligently to make sure none of its customers are misled.

“We are making new policies,” he said. “We are firing people even if a small mistake is made.”

Those words were similar to what Malloy had told me in the fall when I spoke with him about my father’s October experience with Travel Service Pad. After that call, Malloy refunded the $511 fee the agency had charged my dad for the “service” of canceling his return Southwest flight from Orlando to Louisville, Ky., and then rebooking that exact same flight for approximately double the price.

“It’s very painful. It’s not good for our business. And we are doing everything to make it right,” Malloy had said at that time in reference to the slew of similar BBB complaints the company had received.

But it would seem that Travel Service Pad’s practices are deeply ingrained. One apparent victim was San Diego resident Jeri Kwieraga, who says she thought she was dealing directly with Delta by phone on March 22 when she signed a contract to spend $1,579 on two refundable roundtrip tickets to the East Coast.

The contract, which I later viewed, said that the cost would be billed in two separate transactions, but it didn’t specify that one of those transactions would be a sizable agency fee. Kwieraga said that she only figured out that she hadn’t been dealing with Delta and that she’d been charged a $466 fee by Travel Service Pad, after following up on the matter with Delta because something about the transaction didn’t feel right.

Travel Service Pad, along with its sister entity Airtickets and another called Globehunters, are accredited by ARC under the A1 Travel Deals umbrella. ARC’s Cornelius Hattingh, who investigates fraud in his role as director of revenue integrity for ARC, declined to say whether the airline-owned corporation is investigating any of those entities, but he did say that ARC has taken away a “handful” of accreditations over the past 24 months for misrepresentation.

“We take these things extremely seriously,” he said.

Still, Travel Service Pad isn’t the only agency whose practices have generated complaints of deception. Not by a long shot.

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